Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Thursday, September 3, 2020

Jacobs, Smeeding part of human, robot collaboration project

Lindsay Jacobs, Tim Smeeding Lindsay Jacobs, Tim Smeeding

La Follette School faculty members Lindsay Jacobs and Tim Smeeding are co-investigators for a research project to bolster human and robot collaborations in the manufacturing sector.

The research, led by Professor Robert Radwin of the College of Engineering, is funded through a three-year, $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation. Bilge Mutlu, associate professor of computer sciences, and Jingshan Li, professor of engineering, are the other co- investigators.

The researchers plan to analyze manufacturing jobs and then create a “matchmaking” computational framework to identify specific tasks where collaborative, intelligent robotic assistants could boost productivity and worker health and safety. Industry collaborators include General Motors and Ford Motor Company.

The UW–Madison researchers say rather than replacing human workers through automation, robotic assistants can enhance jobs, improve processes, protect workers from some of the physical strain from manual tasks, and create additional job possibilities especially for people with disabilities and older workers. At the same time, Jacobs and Smeeding recognize that robotics could continue to reduce the number of workers needed in manufacturing.

This project takes a multidisciplinary approach to augmenting – rather than replacing – human work with robotics, often referred to as human-robot "teaming."

Jacobs, an assistant professor of public affairs, specializes in labor economics and modeling the interactions among health, job tasks, and labor supply decisions.

“Some tasks are very costly to design and engineer in robots, but they can be done readily by people – and with little strain and increased safety,” Jacobs said. “In this work, our aim is to identify those types of tasks and estimate what the labor supply response would be to new human-robot 'teaming' in a way that is compatible with ongoing manufacturing operations. 

“This requires an understanding of the population’s capabilities and interest in performing different types of work,” she continued. “We do expect, though, that labor-supply responses will likely be highest among people who are older or have disabilities that limit certain types of physical work.”

In her course PA 974 Aging and Public Policy, Jacobs also will introduce material on the implications of robotic technology on labor force participation across various populations, including people with disabilities and age-related decline.

Smeeding, the Lee Rainwater Distinguished Professor of Public Affairs and Economics, is an expert on modeling social and economic mobility across generations, inequality of earnings, income, consumption and wealth, and earnings and income-support policies, where the need for workers may be reduced by robotics that employ otherwise unemployable people or increased if robots replace less-skilled labor.

“The project will confront these tradeoffs,” said Smeeding. “I am honored to be part of this team and to work with Robert, Bilge, Lindsay and Jingshan on one of the most important policy issues of our times.”

The funding includes support for two La Follette School graduate research assistants (GRA).

One GRA will work with Jacobs and do activities related to understanding the technical challenges in human-robot teaming in the larger context of production as well as microeconomic tradeoffs between labor and robotics. The other GRA will work with Smeeding and do activities related to understanding the technical challenges in human-robot teaming in the larger context of production as well as microeconomic tradeoffs between labor and robotics costs. Both graduate students will participate in real-world applications validations.

“This team is well positioned to address the goals of this proposal to understand the impact of teaming humans and intelligent robotic assistants at the individual, operations, and socioeconomic levels,” the researchers wrote in their proposal.