Essential and automated: Virginia Tech history class explores the roles of technology on employees in the COVID era
June 30, 2021
The hungry shopper pulled in front of the bright, blue sign that read “Curbside Pickup.”
He dialed the store number and pressed “2” for assistance.
“We’ll be right out,” said the worker, her voice muffled by two layers of masks. “Do you have any coupons?”
“Nope. Thank you,” replied the shopper. As he waited, he tapped his hands on the wheel and listened to an NPR podcast about tracking goat behavior with GPS collars.
A day before, he dropped $50 worth of groceries in a virtual cart on the store website. The store received the order within seconds.
Eggs and gouda cheese from produce. Three boxes of spaghetti from the pasta aisle. A loaf of sourdough from the bakery section. A bottle of chardonnay.
The grocery worker navigated the store quickly but carefully. Most of the customers she encountered wore masks properly. But some wore them around their chin. Others didn’t wear one at all.
After wheeling the order to the customer’s car, the grocery worker wiped mask fog from her glasses. She handed him a paper receipt before reentering the store. Her boss greeted her with a new assignment.
“We’ve got two more curbside pickups.”
The COVID-19 pandemic forced millions of employees to transition from cubicles to home offices. But for millions more, telework was never an option.
This spring, a Virginia Tech undergraduate history class dove into the pandemic’s effect on essential workers and automation during the pandemic.
Students split into teams to research health care, policing, janitorial services, and education in addition to food services.
History Professor E. Thomas Ewing led the class, titled Topics in the History of Data in Social Context.
“The experience of COVID has demonstrated the importance of human workers — and the heightened risks they face while providing these essential services during a pandemic,” said Ewing, who serves as associate dean for graduate studies and research in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.
The project is connected to a 2018 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
Titled “The Integration of the Humanities and Arts With Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Higher Education: Branches from the Same Tree,” the report identifies emerging evidence “suggesting that integration of the arts, humanities, and STEMM (science, technology, engineering, math, and medicine) is associated with positive learning outcomes that may help students enter the workforce, live enriched lives, and become active and informed members of a modern democracy.”
Ewing served as a member of the study group for the report. Two staff members from the National Academies presented on the report in Blacksburg. Camellia Pastore, a computer science major and this year’s student representative to the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors, served as part of an invited student panel at a forum hosted by the National Academies.
“The class project is connected to the ‘Branches’ report in many respects,” said Ashley Bear, acting director of the National Academies’ Committee on Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine. “The project is anchored in issues and topics of critical importance in the world outside the classroom. It is transdisciplinary in nature, and it calls upon students to draw upon a ‘toolkit’ of knowledge, skills, and competencies to answer real-world questions.”
Each student team in Ewing’s class studied a range of evidence about the experience of essential workers and automation in the past year of the pandemic.
The education group focused on how teachers adapted to technology and how COVID-related measures highlighted disparities across socioeconomic groups.
Students focusing on food services considered the effects of the pandemic and automation on employees working in agricultural fields, processing plants, grocery stories, and restaurants.
The health care group examined the use of telemedicine and automated tools for diagnosis and treatment. In the law enforcement group, students considered the role of new technology and its impact on vulnerable populations. The janitorial services group considered the potential value of automated cleaning tools.
Senior Josie Martin studied food services. While contactless pickup through delivery apps sparked her interest, the mechanical engineering major found advances in automation in agriculture especially compelling.
“What we learned is that there isn’t an easy way to automate these fields without replacing a lot of workers,” said Martin.
Martin said this is especially true when considering the mechanizing of harvesting, which accelerated during the pandemic and replaced many human jobs.
Anisha Tripathi, a junior majoring in computational modeling and data analytics, and Steven Smith, a junior history major, studied the effects of the pandemic on law enforcement. In addition to examining COVID-19 infection rates among police officers, the group focused on the increased use of artificial intelligence to identify suspects, a practice that can perpetuate prejudices.
Nick Anderson, a senior systems biology major, worked with the health care group. The team considered how more telemedicine options opened the door for safer interactions between patients and health care professionals, while recognizing that automated tools can’t replace human expertise in judgment, attention, and assistance.
Anderson said some changes to health care practice appeared beneficial, such as the increased use of machines to analyze blood pressure, weight, and height.
In a post-COVID world, some technological changes made during the pandemic could be here to stay — especially in education.
Teachers and students across the country unaccustomed to online learning had to adapt with new technology. Junior Shreya Sangela, a computational and systems neuroscience major, took part in the education group and studied the impact of online instruction at the K–12 level for disadvantaged students.
While remote learning in K–12 schools presented major problems for school districts, certain elements could prove beneficial if implemented in the long term. This group concluded that in districts with lower income residents and limited educational funding, using online technology could be cost effective because the high upfront cost would give way to lower costs over the long term.
For example, learning resources that are downloadable could benefit students without reliable internet service, improving accessibility for many school districts.
The class also considered the impact of automation on labor through a historical lens.
A group that included junior history major Jarrett Pearson explored the question of how automation threatens the power of workers and raises ethical questions. As a result of the Industrial Age, for instance, technological advances eased the process of handling machinery, resulting in an increase in child labor. Pearson said workers could face challenges again in the future if humanity isn’t at the forefront of decision-making on automation.
Governments need to act quickly to protect workers’ autonomy, or else automation will produce deskilling, which could make workers more vulnerable to explotation or replacement, this group concluded.
Martin proposed an increase in disclosure when it comes to the use of artificial intelligence.
“A lot of times, résumés, bank applications, and job applications get scanned by AI and you have no idea they’re being processed by a robot,” said Martin. “So, if we’re more aware of how often we’re being judged, then we’ll probably want to limit it more.”
Nala Miller suggested that research on algorithmic biases in technology should also help guide tech companies.
“The more we alert people about this,” she said, “the more they will be conscious about it when they’re creating new technology, and the less we’ll put all of our trust in technology.”
Bear said global and local challenges examined by Ewing’s class during the pandemic cannot be addressed by science, engineering, and medicine alone.
“We need knowledge from the humanities and arts integrated with these other disciplines to address these challenges,” said Bear. “We need people to imagine ways in which the innovations that arise during times of crisis can be harnessed in the future to improve health, enhance quality of life, and promote equity.”
To read more about the project and the class, follow this link.
Written by Andrew Adkins