WORCESTER, Mass. — Government, academia, and business are increasingly recognizing the need to collaborate to ensure that the workforce of the future is prepared to work with robots. Worcester Polytechnic Institute, or WPI, yesterday announced that it has received a five-year, $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation for research and training around the adoption of robotic assistants in the workplace.
WPI secured the grant from NSF’s Research Traineeship (NRT) program, which awarded $49 million to 17 institutions across the U.S. to develop and implement graduate education models in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). These projects are intended to immerse students in interdisciplinary research and provide training in career-aligned skillsets. The goal is to enable the next generation of scientific leaders to tackle complex, societal problems, according to the NSF.
“NRT projects are changing the graduate education landscape and preparing STEM scientists for 21st century careers,” said Karen Marrongelle, NSF assistant director for Education and Human Resources. “These STEM graduate students collaborate with diverse groups of stakeholders to tackle complex problems, where solutions often involve large datasets and sophisticated analyses.”
Cagdas Onal, associate professor of mechanical engineering at WPI, is the principal investigator on the grant. He said the interdisciplinary research program, named “Future of Robots in the Workplace — Research & Development” (FORW-RD), will allow trainees “to attain diverse skills needed to navigate opportunities and challenges to shape, guide, and lead the transition to a robot-assisted workplace.”
Onal said he expects the project to train 120 master’s and Ph.D. students, including 30 funded trainees, in mechanical engineering, robotics engineering, computer science, materials science, and user experience design in WPI’s Foisie Business School.
“If the worker isn’t there physically, are they actually responsible for the actions of this robot? Could they still find meaning in their job?” –Cagdas Onal, associate professor of mechanical engineering at WPI
Responsibility for robots in the workplace
Onal said the research idea came from informal discussions with Yunus Telliel, assistant professor of humanities and arts and a co-principal investigator. Onal had been examining ways to integrate robotic technology in the workplace in a socially responsible way, and he had informal talks with Telliel, who was curious to understand how humans would respond to such robot technology in the workplace.
“In our discussions, we talked about the impact and what this means for the future of how we work,” said Onal. “For example, if the worker isn’t there physically, are they actually responsible for the actions of this robot? Could they still find meaning in their job? There are so many different aspects to consider.”
The pair then became aware of the NSF grant and learned that it also aligned with the NSF’s Big Ideas program, which includes a program called “Future of Work.”
“We learned about the grant and thought that this would be a great way to explore some of the ideas we discussed,” said Telliel. “This was a perfect opportunity for us, as we’re trying to imagine a framework in which a truly trans-disciplinary perspective informs the training of the next generation of technologists.”
WPI expects people to remain part of workforce
Onal and Telliel acknowledged ongoing public debate over whether robots will eliminate jobs or allow existing workers to perform more advanced tasks. The researchers said that one of the grant’s premises is that the workplace will remain human-centric and that people will shape the success of human-robot collaboration.
“The FORW-RD program anticipates the need for industry leaders who would be able to develop an integrated perspective on technological change, social impact, and economic consequences,” said Telliel.
The researchers have enlisted the support of additional WPI faculty who could add insights and value to the project. Co-principal investigators on the grant include Jing Xiao, head of the Robotics Engineering program; Jane Li, assistant professor of mechanical engineering; and Pratap Rao, associate professor of mechanical engineering.
In addition, the research team includes three other WPI faculty: Soussan Djamasbi, professor of information systems in the Foisie Business School; Jeanine Skorinko, professor of psychology and director of the psychological science program; and Winston Soboyejo, provost and senior vice president.
The Robot Report is launching the Healthcare Robotics Engineering Forum, which will be on Dec. 9-10 in Santa Clara, Calif. The conference and expo will focus on improving the design, development, and manufacture of next-generation healthcare robots. Learn more about the Healthcare Robotics Engineering Forum, and registration is now open.
How WPI’s FORW-RD Thinking program works
“We need to continually ask questions so that advisors and students can think about larger issues,” said Onal. “This program is not just about doing technology development and figuring out new algorithms. It’s about making sure the programs are perceived correctly and done right for everyone’s benefit.”
FORW-RD’s training activities will cultivate a breadth of interdisciplinary technical and professional skills, in addition to depth in one area of specialization. FORW-RD Thinking seminars will be designed to address ethical, social, economic, legal, and technical issues related to the use of robots in the workplace.
WPI graduate students will take a variety of courses that address how both the technical and human aspects converge in the workplace. Here is an example:
- Example program: “Cross-Disciplinary Scholarship and Training in Convergent Fields,” which focuses on robotic integration in the workplace.
- Activities: Students will develop multidisciplinary research projects that incorporate computing, user experience, social factors in decision making, and ethics, technology, and economy.
- Output: Students will complete a project focused on a particular aspect of human-robot interfacing designed to assist people in workplace settings. All research projects will examine technical, social, and organizational aspects of collaboration involving human and robot teams.
- Anticipated outcome: The goal is for research projects to prepare students for competitive industry or academic careers.