The Future of Work at the Human-Technology Frontier (FW-HTF) is one of 10 new Big Ideas for Future Investment announced by NSF. The FW-HTF cross-directorate program aims to respond to the challenges and opportunities of the changing landscape of jobs and work by supporting convergent research. This award fulfills part of that aim, by examining whether and how a new technology can improve worker productivity, safety, and well-being.

Powered, full-body exoskeletons have the potential to augment human physical capacity, thereby increasing productivity and lowering injury risks, while also preserving human skill for operating in dynamic, unstructured environments. Exoskeletons could also allow people with different physical abilities the opportunity to enter and stay employed in physically-demanding occupations. This project will complete critical fundamental research necessary to make exoskeletons effective for augmenting human performance in industrial use, such as manufacturing and warehousing. The project also examines the potential impacts this new technology may have on the sociotechnological landscape of jobs and workers. The team will develop a new control interface and an intelligent cognitive assistant to make exoskeleton use natural and intuitive, thus minimizing learning time and enabling adaptation to dynamic environments. The multimodal control interface will allow for augmentation of a user's perception and cognition when using physical capacity augmentation systems, and adaptive control of assistance from the exoskeleton according to user and context. The end results of this research will help workers to operate efficiently and seamlessly in dynamic and information-rich industrial settings. Industrial adoption of exoskeletons can have broad-reaching social and economic implications: by understanding the ramifications of this new technology for workforce diversification and labor market outcomes, the research will facilitate technology design choices that benefit the U.S. economy and U.S. workers. Collaboration with industry partners, including Sarcos Robotics and General Electric, will further insure industrial relevance of this project.

This project will advance knowledge and state-of-the-art in exoskeleton control, human-robot cooperation, human factors, and augmented reality systems. An augmented reality interface to improve the user's mental model of exoskeleton capabilities and increase situational awareness will be developed, thereby enabling users to formulate new work strategies only afforded by the newly extended physical capabilities. In terms of human-robot cooperation, an adaptive predictor-based controller of high-level exoskeleton assistance parameters will be developed. This will account for the time varying response of the human to the system and the potential for different steady-state characteristics depending on the user, so as to achieve a tightly-coupled human-in-the-loop system. The assessments of learning and adaptation across a diverse range of workers will be key to making the developed designs more inclusive and effective, and to elucidating the effects of exoskeleton technologies on workforce diversification, including people with cognitive and physical impairments. While the impact of automation (replacing workers with technology) has been extensively studied in the economics literature, this work will generate the first empirical models of the effects of augmentation on worker productivity and well-being, industry profits, and the labor market in general.

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.

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