The University of Massachusetts Amherst
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Roberts Organizes NSF Workshop on Technology, Racial Equity, and the Future of Work

Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts

As the 21st century buries us all in a frenzy of information, cyber-security issues, societal unrest, political divisions, and hyperactivity, it is becoming apparent that solutions to complex technology, work, and racial issues are going to require the concerted efforts of many interdisciplinary experts “to understand the promises and perils of these major societal shifts.” So says Professor Shannon Roberts of our Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department as she attempts to address these major societal problems with a new $99,970 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Part of the solution, Roberts believes, is an NSF-sponsored Workshop on Technology, Racial Equity, and the Future of Work, which she is organizing for April 5 and 6 on the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus. The seminar at 4 p.m. on April 5 in the Atrium of the new Design Building will be given by Moshe Vardi from Rice University and will be open to the public.

As Roberts explains about this first scheduled workshop in a continuing series of such events, “This project aims to convene experts in social sciences, computational sciences, and engineering in order to articulate the social and technical dimensions in understanding the challenges of shaping emergent technologies that are equitable and result in ‘good’ jobs for a wider range of workers.”

Our cultural problems are myriad. Among them, the disappearance of stable work is a growing problem in the U.S., but its effects are not evenly distributed. The race gap in pay and the lack of racial diversity in the science and engineering workforce responsible for designing technology are problems that converge with changes in technology and work.

“These problems are compounded by spatial segregation, favoring skill-rich areas and leaving vulnerable populations further isolated,” observes Roberts. “Can emerging technologies like artificial intelligence be imagined in a way that increases equity and diversity? Can we organize work in a way that contributes to the quality of technologies and the productivity and satisfaction of workers in an increasingly diverse population?”

The major goal of the first workshop is to develop a shared knowledge of the current social, organizational, and technological processes transforming labor markets and lay out research questions that will engage computer scientists, engineers, and social scientists in imagining a brighter future for everyone.

“We anticipate,” says Roberts, “that the workshop will produce communication products that will be shared with key stakeholders like labor and business leaders, entrepreneurs, and nonprofit advocates, as well as state and local policymakers, in order to develop an informed central research agenda that will increase the likelihood of positive impact on technology, equity, and work. We also hope to stimulate interdisciplinary panels on this topic at future professional society meetings.”

Themes for the cross-disciplinary discussion groups of experts include: 1) changing the organization of work and technology to allow for greater racial equity and stable employment; 2) making decisions in developing artificial intelligence and processes for human-technology partnerships; 3) developing methods for assessing emerging technologies that integrate racial equity and work satisfaction; and 4) identifying inequalities in the geography of work and how to transform our economic and workforce development systems to respond to these challenges.

“By convening experts at a workshop to discuss these issues both in terms of what is known and to identify the research problems yet to be studied, we imagine that new ideas and themes may emerge as well,” says Roberts. “The discussions will be captured by graduate student note-takers at the workshop for a brief report that the organizers will compile as one tangible outcome of the expert workshop. The report will also collect relevant scholarly citations on the themes.”

At the workshop the participants will be asked to develop communication products (such as a PowerPoint presentation or an op-ed) based on their cross-disciplinary discussion and development of convergent knowledge.

These communication products will be the basis for a second workshop that will include regional participants, who will be able to discuss the ideas about how to advance our understanding of how to shape new artificial intelligence technologies for greater equity and satisfaction with work. These regional stakeholders will include state and local policymakers, labor union representatives and workers, and business owners and entrepreneurs. The second workshop will allow the project to develop a more informed set of ideas for a central research agenda and thus have a greater likelihood of positive impact on technology, equity, and meaningful work.

“The convergent knowledge themes that will come out of the workshops will form the basis for a series of interdisciplinary panels we will organize at our annual meetings,” concludes Roberts. “These plans to continue convening the experts and developing convergent knowledge across our disciplinary based communities will advance an agenda of key issues in the future of technology and work.”

If you would like to find out more about these workshops, please contact Professor Shannon Roberts at (March 2018)