Expert Focus: Advancing our understanding of new technologies and the future of work
Equitable Growth is committed to building a community of scholars working to understand how inequality affects broadly shared growth and stability. To that end, we have created the monthly series, “Expert Focus.” This series highlights scholars in the Equitable Growth network and beyond who are at the frontier of social science research. We encourage you to learn more about both the researchers featured below and our broader network of experts. If you are looking for support to investigate the intersection of technological change and economic inequality and growth, please see our current Request for Proposals.
The adoption of new technologies always affects how people work, but the possibilities posed by increasingly advanced artificial intelligence, automation, and robotics is spurring new questions about whether new technologies will lead to a seismic shift in the landscape of jobs and work in the United States and abroad. The choices employers make over how to implement new technologies could lead to an array of benefits for workers, such as higher wages, new occupations and industries, and safer working conditions—or various harms, such as lost jobs, weakened worker agency, and dangerous paces of work.
How employers are implementing new technologies will be shaped by the U.S. policy, regulatory, and economic landscape, which will in turn influence the effect of these technologies on workers’ lives and whether those effects will be different for different types of workers.
In this installment of “Expert Focus,” we highlight scholars across disciplines who are helping to advance our understanding of the adoption of new technologies and the future of work. This scope of work includes technological change, worker surveillance, privacy, automation, algorithmic bias, and discrimination. These scholars’ findings can help guide policymakers, business leaders, and advocates who are interested in addressing structural racial, gender, and other inequalities in the U.S. labor market and in labor markets abroad to create a more equitable future for all workers.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Daron Acemoglu is an Institute Professor in the department of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Acemoglu has published a vast amount of research on topics ranging from economic growth and inequality to economic development and labor economics. A subset of Acemoglu’s research includes technological innovation and change on the future of work. In particular, he has written about the implications of new technology—such as AI, automation, and robotics—and the changes they can bring on the economy and the way people work and live.
Recently, Acemoglu published a working paper about the harms of AI, discussing how it can produce various social, economic and political harms, but stating that these harms are not due to the underlying nature of the technology itself, but rather in how it’s being currently used and developed by firms and governments in workplaces. In another working paper with his MIT economist colleague and Equitable Growth Research Advisory Board member and grantee David Autor, Acemoglu and his co-authors study the impact of AI on labor markets using online job vacancies, finding that while AI is currently substituting for humans in a subset of tasks, it is not yet having detectable labor market consequences.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Ifeoma Ajunwa is an associate professor of law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as well as the founding director of the AI Decision-Making Research (AI-DR) Program, a training program for students interested in law and technology. Ajunwa is an expert on the intersection between law and technology, with a focus on the governance, impact, and ethics of new and emerging workplace technology. Often interweaving diversity and inclusion in the labor market into her work, she has written extensively about employment discrimination, worker surveillance, and genetic data and civil rights, and has published op-eds in major outlets such as The Washington Post, and The Atlantic. In 2019, she wrote an op-ed in The New York Times on how more adequate safeguards are needed to prevent unlawful employment discrimination in automated hiring platforms.
In 2020, Ajunwa testified before the U.S. Congress Committee on Education and Labor on protecting workers’ civil rights in the age of technology. Her forthcoming book, The Quantified Worker: Law and Technology in the Modern Workplace (Cambridge University Press, 2022), will examine the role of technology in the workplace and its effects on management practices.
Bo Cowgill is an assistant professor in the Management Division at Columbia University’s Business School whose interests lie in microeconomics, specifically technology information and labor markets. Cowgill writes extensively about artificial intelligence and algorithms, and their intersection with decisionmaking within labor markets and the workplace. His findings have been cited in media outlets such as Forbes, The New York Times, and in scientific and economic journals.
A large part of Cowgill’s research covers bias and fairness, which is the subject of his 2020 paper in which Cowgill develops an economic perspective on algorithmic bias and fairness, stating that algorithms can be used to bring about positive change, but more guidance is needed about how to deploy and regulate algorithms to minimize the potential harmful side effects of their use and implementation. At the Allied Social Science Associations annual meeting in 2020, Cowgill also presented a field experiment of his research on why algorithmic bias occurs, which Equitable Growth featured in a roundup.
Pauline T. Kim
Washington University in St. Louis
Pauline T. Kim is the Daniel Noyes Kirby Professor of Law at the Washington University in St. Louis and the co-director of its Center For Empirical Research, which promotes, supports, and enhances research about law and legal institutions. Kim specializes in employment law and has published her research and findings in numerous Law Journals. Much of Kim’s research focuses on how the adoption and use of new technologies such as artificial intelligence, algorithms, and big data in the workplace legally intersects with employee privacy, discrimination, equality, and fairness.
In a recent Virginia Law Review article, Kim explores the concept of “manipulating opportunity,” where predictive algorithms control what information is delivered to whom, resulting in the potential of creating inequality and discriminatory effects in opportunity markets such as employment, housing, and credit. Her work “AI and Inequality” looks at the social consequences of AI-powered tools and their threat to worsen class inequality. Currently, Kim, along with her co-authors, publishes Work Law: Cases and Materials, a multi-edition textbook that takes a comprehensive view on employment law. Be on the lookout for her forthcoming article in the California Law Review that explores the extent to which designers can and should take race into account in order to mitigate or remove bias when building predictive algorithms.
University of Pennsylvania
Steve Viscelli is a faculty fellow at the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania and a lecturer in the Department of Sociology who studies work, automation, public policy, and energy and climate change. Much of Viscelli’s research and consulting expertise focuses on the freight transportation industry, which is the subject of his 2016 book, The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream, in which he takes an ethnographic approach to exploring how the deregulation of trucking and the rise of independent contracting transformed the trucking industry in the United States.
In 2020, Viscelli received an Equitable Growth grant to examine how last-mile delivery workers experience new technological and outsourcing practices within the package delivery industry. Recently, Equitable Growth was excited to have Viscelli as a panelist during “A future for all workers: Technology and worker power,” a virtual event held in February 2021 where he discussed how workers can use technology to exercise their voice at work. Viscelli is set to release a book in 2022 based on his 2018 report titled “Driverless? Autonomous Trucks and the Future of the American Trucker,” which explores the potential impacts of self-driving trucks on labor, workers, and the environment, and the role public policy will play in shaping them.
Equitable Growth is building a network of experts across disciplines and at various stages in their career who can exchange ideas and ensure that research on inequality and broadly shared growth is relevant, accessible, and informative to both the policymaking process and future research agendas. Explore the ways you can connect with our network or take advantage of the support we offer here.