Friday, September 24, 2021

In a research grant from the US National Science Foundation, professors from the UI College of Engineering and the Tippie College of Business are setting an international roadmap and research agenda for exploring the role of Artificial Intelligence in Future Office Work.

The use of automation and artificial intelligence (AI) in the workplace is often associated with factories and laboratories, but researchers at the University of Iowa are interested in exploring how automation and AI are becoming increasingly prevalent in the modern office setting. With a grant from the National Science Foundation, Priya Pennathur, an associate professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, will lead a team who will study office work and the design of automation that affects it, with the goal of improving both office automation as well as training and outcomes for workers.

“With AI’s impending march into the office work domain, office work design, once again, is at the cross-roads,” said Pennathur. “But at the present time, we know and understand little about how AI will specifically change office work.” Pennathur is an expert in cognitive work design and will help develop research questions about cognitive work and information processing in office settings.

Of particular interest to the team are: a clear picture of the capabilities of AI technologies in office work; what tasks the office workers will do and what tasks the AI will do; what skills and training future office workers will need; and how AI in office work will affect the productivity. The researchers also note that 70% of office workers are women, so they will also explore issues of workforce equity and diversity related to the use of AI.

Other researchers on the project include:

  • Andrew Kusiak, professor of industrial and systems engineering, an expert in the data sciences, who will help define the research agenda for intelligent systems in an office environment
  • Beth Livingston, assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship in the UI Tippie College of Business, who has expertise in human resources development, labor relations, and gender and has previously investigated gender norms, diversity, and inclusivity and its impacts in the workplace. Livingston’s expertise will help in developing insights on emotions and attitudes of office workers from gender, labor policy, and equity perspectives.
  • Arun Pennathur, associate professor of industrial and systems engineering, who has researched and written extensively about worker skills and training when automating workplaces. Arun Pennathur has also created and participated in many NSF efforts to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion, and has led many workshops for capacity building through ideation.

“The problem requires a multidisciplinary lens and expertise if we are to generate good solutions,” said Priya Pennathur. “The range of research backgrounds on our team will provide additional support for our project outcomes.”

For more information on the project, visit the NSF website or contact Priya Pennathur at