UI professors study the effect of AI on office work

A grant of $ 150,000 from the National Science Foundation was dedicated to an interdisciplinary effort to learn about the impact of AI on office jobs.

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University of Iowa professor Beth Livingston poses for a portrait in the Pappajohn Business Building on Friday, October 15, 2021 (Jerod Ringwald / The Daily Iowan)


A group of professors at the University of Iowa are studying how the computerization of certain office jobs, known as clerical work, can change the workforce.

The National Science Foundation led the investigation by awarding $ 150,000 to a group of UI professors to study how the impact of AI could reduce some skills and promote others in office work.

Beth Livingston, a project researcher and assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship at UI’s Tippie College of Business, said people don’t see advancements in technology targeting office jobs.

“We think of automated factories, we think of coding work, et cetera, but we don’t think of receptionists or customer service or secretaries or office workers, whose work is disrupted by AI or automation. “she said.

Livingston said the one-year grant is the precursor to a more focused second grant. The research will focus on the current literature on AI in office workers as well as the opinions of office workers through focus groups.

“This grant is meant to allow us to find out and find out what problems might be happening,” she said. “One of the things that is so important in science and research, the social sciences and the hard sciences, is that we ask the right questions before you embark on any kind of grant.”

The grant will last for one year and is part of the National Science Foundation’s Future of Work at the Human Technology and Frontier program.

Priyadarshini Pennathur, professor of industrial engineering and user interface systems, the project leader, said she had previously studied how computerization has affected the work of healthcare offices.

Repetitive office tasks like planning, communicating and analyzing data, Pennathur said, are particularly prone to AI automation because they require structured logic. These tasks which are normally done manually, she said, are becoming computerized.

“It’s almost like a personal customer service agent,” she said. “It’s like you can think of bots collecting data, doing a little predictive analytics, and so on. “

Pennathur said his team wanted to find out what alternative skills would be in demand when AI subsumes certain office tasks. For example, she said, if databases no longer require people to operate, a clerk could be trained in conflict resolution as a useful alternative skill.

“Office work is everywhere,” Pennathur said. “So if AI is to have an impact on that, the impact will be felt everywhere.”

Andrew Kusiak, co-researcher and professor of industrial and systems engineering, said AI could change the face of offices for the better, just as it accelerates manufacturing success.

“I think that’s the goal of this project, is to identify what would be the best artificial intelligence technologies, in what areas that would yield benefits,” Kusiak said. “There’s that layer in decision making, and it’s the process of automating, using tools, using technology that will hopefully make better decisions than people do. currently.”

Another benefit of the grant, Livingston said, is that it is being researched early enough to potentially mitigate the negative effects of AI.

“With this grant we are able to be forward looking and proactive,” said Livingston. “… And trying to help these professions be able to adapt in real time,” Livingston said.

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