Up-skilling and Re-skilling Marginalized Rural and Urban Digital Workers: AI-worker collaboration to access creative work

Benjamin Hanrahan

Sponsoring Agency
National Science Foundation


Many rural areas in the United States face a lack of economic opportunity. The future of work can bring opportunities for rural and urban marginalized communities through online work and the gig economy. However, work on current platforms is often low-level labeling work offering few opportunities for advancement. It is often intended to train Artificial Intelligence to automate this work away, instead of training workers. The proposed project aims to uplift workers and improve the marketplace for online work so that digital work may help with the economic recovery of regions whose traditional industries have left. This project aims to develop sustainable methods for transitioning workers to high-skilled and creative digital jobs that are unlikely to be automated in the near to medium term future. Crowd work can be transformed to not only improve the work product for the employer, but also to help the worker move along the career paths necessary for the future of work. The project team from four universities, Carnegie Mellon U., West Virginia U., Pennsylvania State University and University of Pennsylvania has partnered with local institutions to provide workers training to perform progressively more advanced digital work, while earning money. The vision of the project is to scaffold workers through basic computer fluency, working with AI tools, and finally innovation and creativity skills. This work is in collaboration with a rural partner (Rupert Public Library, in Rupert, WV) and urban partner (CommunityForge in Wilkinsburg, PA) and also benefits from a partnership with Bosch Inc. in Pittsburgh, ConservationX Labs in Washington DC, and the State of West Virginia.

The proposed research addresses a fundamental challenge in that those who most need to develop skills to gain higher paying jobs cannot afford the unpaid time spent in training needed to develop them. Accomplishing this vision will require solving the following core research questions: (i) How can one best support the marginalized workers in their transition to online work?, (ii) How can Artificial Intelliegnce tools augment workers, rather than displace them?, (iii) How can tools be designed to help workers build skills and creativity for work that is unlikely to be automated in the future?. This project has the potential to make advances across a variety of interrelated fields including crowdsourcing, Artificial Intelligence, Human Computer Interaction, Cognitive Science, Learning Science, Sociology and Economics. Simultaneously enabling both improved work outcomes as well as skill development in crowd work will require the development of models of workers, skills, and their trajectories at a more nuanced level. Enabling workers to collaborate with Artificial Intelligence will require new human-computer interaction paradigms. Supporting creativity and the development of new skills will require the exploration of new organization and coordination structures. By grounding the investigations in real world contexts, the research aims for generalizable knowledge that can lay a foundation for research on the future of crowd work at the human-AI frontier

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Research Area
Artificial Intelligence and Big Data
Human-Computer Interaction
Social and Organizational Informatics