WPI researchers (from left) Soussan Djamasbi, Jeanine Skorinko, Winston Soboyejo, Cagdas Onal (principal investigator), Yunus Telliel, Jing Xiao, Pratap Rao and Jane Li with the Baxter research robot.

WPI Researchers Win $3M Award to Study Human-Robot Interaction in the Workplace

Projects are designed to immerse 120 graduate students in interdisciplinary research and training that will help tackle future workplace challenges
October 24, 2019

Anticipating a future of work that establishes a division of labor between humans and robotic technology, Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) researchers have secured a five-year, $3 million National Science Foundation grant focusing on research and training related to the adoption of robotic assistants in the workplace.

WPI received the grant from NSF’s Research Traineeship (NRT) program, which awarded $49 million to 17 institutions across the United States to develop and implement graduate education traineeship models in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

According to the NSF, these projects will immerse graduate students in interdisciplinary research and deliver training in career-aligned skillsets, which will enable the next generation of scientific leaders to tackle complex, societal problems.

“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. Onal said the interdisciplinary research program, named “Future of Robots in the Workplace - Research & Development (FORW-RD),” will allow graduate student trainees “…to attain diverse skills needed to navigate opportunities and challenges to shape, guide, and lead the transition to a robot-assisted workplace.”

He said the project anticipates training 120 master’s and PhD students, including 30 funded trainees, from mechanical engineering, robotics engineering, computer science, materials science, and user experience design in WPI’s 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

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 transdisciplinary perspective informs the training of the next generation of technologists.”

Onal and Telliel acknowledged ongoing public debate as to whether robots will either take jobs away or allow existing workers to perform more advanced tasks. The researchers say 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. They are joined by three other co-principal investigators on the grant: Jing Xiao, head of the Robotics Engineering program; Jane Li, assistant professor of mechanical engineering; and Pratap Rao, associate professor of mechanical engineering.

Additionally, the research team includes three other WPI faculty: Soussan Djamasbi, professor of information systems in the Business School; Jeanine Skorinko, professor of psychology and director of the psychological science program; and Winston Soboyejo, provost and senior vice president. 

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 address ethical, social, economic, legal, and technical issues related to the use of robots in the workplace.

“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 Thinking”

How the Program Works

WPI graduate students will take a variety of courses that address how both the technical and human aspects converge in the workplace.

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.

About Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Worcester Polytechnic Institute, a purpose-driven community of educators and researchers, has been the global leader in project-based learning for 50 years. An impact maker for higher education and the world, WPI prepares confident, competent problem solvers with a project-based curriculum that immerses students in authentic, real-world experiences.