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Recent estimates suggest that expenditure on robotics is set to reach $115 billion this year, before rising to over $210 billion by 2022. Whereas traditionally industrial robots would be complex and heavyweight bits of equipment that worked largely in isolation from their human "colleagues," it’s increasingly common to see man and machine working together.
This is resulting in a growing interest in the psychology and practicality of these interactions. For instance, a few years ago researchers explored how people feel about having robots for colleagues.
The researchers set out to examine whether there may exist cultural differences in the acceptance of robotic colleagues between German and American workers. They didn’t find much in the way of national differences, but they did reveal some interesting thoughts on life with a robotic colleague.
For instance, over 60% of respondents could easily imagine being supported by a robotic colleague, with 21% even suggesting such a change would be an improvement, with this largely due to the belief that a robot would be less error prone and more predictable in their behavior.
Only so good
A recent study from Cornell University suggests this is not quite so clear cut however. It explored how people feel when they're working alongside robots, and the robot turns out to be better at their job than them.
It emerged that being beaten by a machine tends to make people feel bad about themselves and their abilities, which in turn makes them resent the machines.
"Think about a cashier working side-by-side with an automatic check-out machine, or someone operating a forklift in a warehouse which also employs delivery robots driving right next to them," the researchers say. "While it may be tempting to design such robots for optimal productivity, engineers and managers need to take into consideration how the robots' performance may affect the human workers' effort and attitudes toward the robot and even toward themselves. Our research is the first that specifically sheds light on these effects."
The authors believe that their findings tap into the kind of loss aversion previously identified by behavioral economists. In this theory, people often reduce their effort level when their competitors are performing better. A second study, from researchers at Aix-Marseille University highlights the neurological action triggered by working with a robot.
It found that the area of the brain that manages social rewards are triggered far less frequently when working alongside machines than they are when we work with fellow humans. When recording the brain activity of volunteers in a fMRI machine, the researchers observed clear differences in the amygdalae, basal ganglia and hypothalamus, with activity in all three areas rising when the volunteers talked with a fellow human, and falling when conversing with a robot.
The German research at the start of this article highlighted the difficulties many people have bonding with machines. There was a strong appreciation of the so called ‘uncanny valley’ among participants in their research, with the volunteers revealing that they don’t want robots to start displaying emotions. This is further reflected in the belief that whilst robots are great at routine tasks, more complex endeavors are beyond them. This is especially true of things such as leadership, with very few respondents willing to consider a robot boss.
“A robot has no empathy for my family situation or other concerns that radiate into the job” they would say. “A machine cannot judge a man… and cannot serve as role model,” they continue.
It seems almost perverse to suggest, but there is a notion that it is the perfection of robots that prevents us from creating an emotional bond with our robot colleagues. Research from the University of Lincoln found that when robots were made with similar flaws and foibles as us, volunteers were better able to bond and form an emotional attachment to them.
Does this mean that humans cannot form any kind of emotional attachment to robots? Perhaps not, with research published in Nature highlighting the compassion and empathy people can feel for robots.
After wiring volunteers up to an EEG to monitor their brain activity, they were able to show that people exposed to images of a robotic hand in a painful situation exhibited empathy towards the robot. Granted, the empathy wasn't on the same level as they showed to humans, but it was there nonetheless.
At the moment, we are still at an early stage in our understanding of how man and machine function alongside one another, and so findings such as these remain novel and exciting. As man and machine begin to work increasingly in unison, it’s vital that we gain a greater understanding of the nature of the interactions between them. Considerable time and energy have been devoted to ensuring that human employees work effectively together, but perhaps now the time has come for similar energy to be devoted to ensuring man and machine can do likewise.
“We naturally project to and expect from robots human qualities such as personality, gender, ethnicity, and competence,” Sangseok You, assistant professor of information systems at HEC Paris, told me recently. “In the past, research on teamwork and collaboration has focused on enhancing the outcomes and making teams more viable between people. It is now vital that we expand our effort to unpacking human minds toward robotic colleagues and managing sustainable human-robot teamwork.”
Successful organizations have always been able to successfully integrate new technologies into the workplace, but it’s perhaps fair to say that the introduction of intelligent robots presents a challenge like no other. As our understanding grows, it’s a challenge we will increasingly be equipped to tackle head on.