Understanding Emerging Technologies, Racial Equity, and the Future of Work

An interdisciplinary UMass team led by ISSR Director Laurel Smith-Doerr (PI) and Co-PIs Enobong (Anna) Branch, Shlomo Zilberstein, Henry Renski, and Shannon Roberts has received a National Science Foundation conference grant funded under one of the NSF Ten Big Ideas—the Future of Work at Human-Technology Frontiers (HTF). On April 5-6th, the Institute for Social Science Research convened renowned social scientists, computer scientists, engineers and influential professionals from across the U.S. for the second of three meetings funded by this grant, to consider the question of racial equity in how scholars understand emerging technologies and the workplace. The workshop opened with a keynote address on Emerging Technologies and the Future of Work from renowned computer scientist Moshe Vardi (Rice University) followed by a Critical Reflection on Racial Inequalities in the US Workforce and the Future of Work by Enobong (Anna) Branch. The workshop was a wide-ranging interdisciplinary discussion situating racial equity as a key component of the national conversation on Artificial Intelligence, emerging technologies, and the future of work.

The UMass team shepherded breakout conversations that enabled deeper discussions of key issues. Henry Renski, Associate Professor of Regional Planning, led the discussion on the new spatial mismatch. Shannon Roberts, Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, led the discussion of driving and automation. Enobong (Anna) Branch, Associate Professor of Sociology, led the discussion on intersectionality of race, gender or skill. Shlomo Zilberstein, Professor of Computer Science, led the discussion on Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Work. Laurel Smith-Doerr, Professor of Sociology, led the discussion on knowledge production.

Envisioning the future of work requires both creative imagination of changes yet to come, and careful contextualization of imagined futures in United States’ historical racial inequalities. This workshop’s discussions ranged widely to integrate past- and future-scapes: from statistical projections for American workers affected by automation of transportation systems, to prospects for universal basic income when workers are displaced, to understanding how durable inequalities for black women workers in the US have operated over the last century, and how previous technological displacement has not affected all workers in the same way given occupational segregation. To drive home these issues, scholars examined the specific example of automation in transportation and transportation-related occupations.

The workshop featured a talk by Ruha Benjamin (Princeton University) entitled Captivating Technology: Reimagining Race, Innovation, and Equity in Everyday Life. One interesting discussion detailed how artificial intelligence is a different kind of technological change than we have seen in the past. Some claim that routine white-collar work (e.g., chemical testing) is more likely to be replaced than routine service work (e.g., bussing tables). There was agreement that education will remain central to workforce development, but less certainty about what kind of education is needed, and how access to the most advanced education can be available to all, given a legacy of racial inequality.   

In each breakout session, participants identified gaps in existing empirical research related to the theme and brainstormed interdisciplinary research that would help to fill those gaps. Consistently, attendees spoke about how around these issues are inadequate or, in many cases, simply missing. Additionally, sessions addressed the importance of education -- not only as it relates to skill-building for workers in this new economy, but also the importance of education on racial bias and diversity for tech developers, policy-makers, and researchers.

This groundbreaking dialogue is part of the larger NSF-funded project entitled “Understanding Emerging Technologies, Racial Equity, and the Future of Work.”  It began with an experts’ workshop internal to UMass in March, where scholars on campus were able to provide their expertise on these topics and help develop brainstorming questions posed during the April workshop. On June 18th, the PIs will bring together stakeholders from local community groups, non-profits, worker organizations, and policymaking agencies to test ideas from the April workshop against on-the-ground experiences as they relate to work, racial equity, and automation. A key goal of this June workshop is to connect researchers with practitioners who can use scholarship to develop address racial inequality across a number of areas. For a list of participants and literature reviewed see the April workshop website. Please contact Laurel Smith-Doerr (lsmithdoerr@soc.umass.edu) with questions about this project.