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School of Information Studies professors awarded almost $500,000 to study workforce automation

Courtesy of SU Imaging Center

With the grant, the School of Information Studies professors will create a research coordination — a group of scholars who will do research on work and automation to produce articles, papers, software and systems.

The National Science Foundation awarded two Syracuse University professors nearly $500,000 to study the future interactions between humans and machines.

Recipients of the award — SU School of Information Studies professors Kevin Crowston and Ingrid Erickson, and Stevens Institute of Technology School of Business professor Jeffrey Nickerson — must amass different members from the science, technology, engineering, math and humanities fields to share research and scholarly findings at annual conferences.

“We’re interested in what jobs using smarter machines look like, but more importantly, we want to know how to better design work and technologies that support work,” Crowston said. “And we believe that you can’t design work and technology separately but need to think about them holistically.”

With the grant, the professors will create a research coordination network — a group of scholars who will do research on work and automation to produce articles, papers, software and systems.

Thirty people are already interested in helping run network activities, Crowston said.

Crowston and Erickson are inviting more members to participate. The advisory board includes researchers from companies such as Facebook, Microsoft and Nissan who are also involved with creating intelligent machines.

“The most important aspect of this award is building a network of scholars,” Nickerson said. The three investigators in the network have different backgrounds, and the network will expand to contain different institutions and disciplines, he added.

Crowston, Erickson and Nickerson aim to give a glimpse into the future when humans work side-by-side with artificial intelligence.

Within 20 years, though, automation will replace half of working Americans, according to a 2013 University of Oxford study.

“Researchers should be thinking not only about improving AI but improving the lot of people who might or will interact with AI. We need researchers across a broad spectrum of disciplines and we need them to speak a common language,” Nickerson said. “Creating a network of scholars from different disciplines who speak that common language is an important goal of the grant.”

While the project won’t have any visible, immediate effects, Crowston said he believes it will have a lasting impact at SU.

An understanding of how new technologies will affect work and how people can manage with the relationship between technology and design work will be a key job skill for graduates, he added.

“I am hopeful that what we learn from the research … will make its way into classes and will be a signature for our school,” Crowston said.

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