Padir to Lead $2.5M NSF Grant to Develop Collaborative Robots to Impact the Future of Work at the Human-Technology Frontier

professor in foreground with robotics lab blurred in background

Electrical and Computer Engineering Associate Professor Taskin Padir (PI) was recently awarded a $2.5 million National Science Foundation grant leading a convergent team of Northeastern University researchers, including Kemi Jona (CPS Assistant Vice-Chancellor), Alicia Modestino (CSSH Associate Professor), Kristian Kloeckl (CAMD Associate Professor), and John Basl (CSSH Associate Professor), to create “Co-worker Robots to Impact Seafood Processing (CRISP): Designs, Tools and Methods for Enhanced Worker Experience.” A follow-on award to a Department of Defense-funded project, CRISP will redesign the processes in these harsh environments to provide better working conditions and enhance company productivity.

Seafood Processing Plants Are Harsh Environments for Human Workers. They Don’t Have To Be.

Advanced sensing, automation, and artificial intelligence are changing workplaces in many industries. But these changes don’t have to mean that robots are replacing humans.

Researchers at Northeastern are working with the seafood processing industry as a test case to learn more about how robots could be integrated into the workforce. These robotic coworkers would simultaneously make the workplace safer and more comfortable for human workers and more efficient and profitable for companies.

“There are numerous risky, dangerous parts of seafood processing, which suggests that there might be value in developing collaborative robotic systems,” says Kristian Kloeckl, an associate professor of art, design, and architecture who is investigating the best way for humans and robots to work together. “We’re interested in understanding how people in this industry work, and how they can be supported in their work by adaptive and collaborative machines.”

The process of getting a fish from the ocean to a restaurant or supermarket is cold, messy, and dangerous. The animals have to be gutted, deboned, fileted, weighed, measured, sorted and packaged—all in a frigid, slippery warehouse.

There aren’t enough U.S. workers interested in this kind of work, says Taskin Padir, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering who will be designing and building the robots. Much of the seafood caught by American fishermen is shipped overseas for processing and then sold back to retailers in the United States.

“If we can augment every human worker we have right now with a robotic coworker, we should be able to double the production,” says Padir, who has been working with seafood processing plants in Massachusetts for the past year. “We should be able to process the seafood that we cannot currently process in the United States.”

But it’s not all about efficiency. With the help of a recent grant from the National Science Foundation, Northeastern researchers are completely re-imagining the industry. Alicia Sasser Modestino, associate professor of public policy, urban affairs, and economics, is evaluating the economic impact on workers and companies; John Basl, associate professor of philosophy, is looking at the ethics of autonomy (How do we build a robot that respects human values, such as privacy?); and Kemi Jona, assistant vice chancellor of digital innovation and enterprise learning, is designing training programs to give workers the skills they will need in the new workplace.

“Ultimately, if we talk about developing systems for human-robot collaborations, we really need to understand the human component in that, in order to make any moves forward,” says Kloeckl. “The way we design these machines, and the way we design the integration of these machines, will very much be a process of designing work.”

by Laura Castañón, News@Northeastern

Abstract Source: NSF

This Future of Work at the Human-Technology Frontier (FW-HTF) project will investigate the appropriate development and deployment of collaborative robots to transform profitability, productivity, safety, sustainability, and worker quality of life in the seafood processing industry, where harsh conditions and demanding and dangerous tasks challenge the capabilities of humans and robots alike. The result will be designs, tools, methods, and datasets to facilitate seamless human-robot collaboration. Soft robot manipulators will augment the safe and reliable handling of slippery, scaly, and flexible objects. Emerging capabilities in artificial intelligence will assist in identifying and inspecting varieties of fish and shellfish. Critical to the project is understanding how best to allocate specific tasks among robot and human workers, integrating a complex set of desired outcomes, across scales of individual workers, independent businesses, domestic and migrant labor markets, national economic sectors, and global trade, while respecting environmental and ethical constraints. Associated educational and outreach programs will empower engineers, design experts, and social scientists how to address challenges at the convergence of robotics and manipulation, artificial intelligence, human-robot collaboration, ethics, and labor economics. Training programs will develop a new cadre of learners and researchers in data, technology, and human literacies. In 2017, the US imported record amounts of seafood, corresponding to a trade deficit of more than $17 billion. Due to low domestic unemployment and obstacles to employing migrant labor, the US seafood processing industry has been unable to meet US consumer demand. This project will advance US leadership in a globally competitive and domestically underserved industry, while simultaneously advancing the understanding of key scientific, engineering, and societal challenges.

The research goals of the project will impact five interconnected and convergent areas, namely (i) collaborative robotics and shared autonomy, (ii) interaction design with data visualizations, (iii) labor economics in seafood industry, (iv) ethics of autonomy in the workplace, (v) workforce training and new skills learning. To address shortcomings of today’s human-robot co-worker teams, the research plan aims to dramatically enhance productivity in complex environments, while paying specific attention to factors affecting user acceptability. The team will emphasize the integration of robotic systems in the existing socio-technical context — existing machinery and tools and existing human work practices, including formal and informal modalities ? to develop an approach of ambient and distributed robotics, rather than individual robot interventions. The research plan develops a constellation of design requirements for systems through user-centered design and ideation activities, iteratively advancing model-based and data-driven methods, validating designs through usability studies, and assessing the societal and economic impact of technologies to impact the future of work. The project incorporates and builds upon improvisation in the everyday seafood processing plant workplace, to design and validate robot co-worker competencies. Complementing the technological objectives, the project includes human-subject studies to address ethical issues raised by the adoption of robotics in the workplace. Addressing these issues — which include challenges specific to a labor context with immigrant labor, low wages, and harsh working conditions — is essential to successful robotics integration and adoption. Finally, the project will evaluate the economic impact of automation on both workers and companies in this emerging socio-technological landscape to understand both the costs and the benefits of adopting new technologies that will shape the future workplace.

Related Faculty: Taskin Padir

Related Departments:Electrical & Computer Engineering