New research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology revealed that humans prefer having robots in control over manufacturing tasks.

The research, carried out by the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab of MIT, aimed to see if workers will feel devalued or replaced if companies use robots in the manufacturing process. The benefits of automating processes have long been recognized to streamline tasks and free up humans from tedious jobs. But how will human workers respond to such changes?

According to the research, workers would actually like to have robots take control.

"In our research we were seeking to find that sweet spot for ensuring that the human workforce is both satisfied and productive," said Matthew Gombolay, a CSAIL PhD student and the leader of the research project.

"We discovered that the answer is to actually give machines more autonomy, if it helps people to work together more fluently with robot teammates." 

In the research study, groups composed of two human workers and one robot worker were exposed to three working conditions. The first condition was manual, where all tasks were assigned by a human. The second condition was fully autonomous, where all tasks were assigned by the robot. Third condition was semi-autonomous, where one human assigns tasks to himself while the robot assigns tasks to the other human.

Out of the three set-ups, the one that featured the most efficiency while also being the one most preferred by human workers was the fully autonomous one. The human workers said that the robot worker "better understood them" and "improved the efficiency of the team."

Gombolay says that handing over control to robot workers does not mean that cyborgs will be leading the manufacturing processes. The notion simply means that the tasks are assigned, scheduled and managed by a robot worker through a human-created algorithm.

"Instead of coming up with a plan by hand, it's about developing tools to help create plans automatically," Gombolay said. 

In addition to task management, the robot workers will be able to adjust work plans on-the-fly, creating alternate schedules for certain tasks in sudden situations such as malfunctioning machines. This instant re-working of plans is an advantage that robot workers clearly have over human workers, who would have to stop all processes and take time to formulate a new plan.

The algorithm that will be programmed to be used by robot workers in manufacturing processes can later be expanded to work with search-and-rescue robots, human-human collaborations, and even direct collaborations between a human and a robot, where a robot can aid a person in performing specific tasks.

Gombolay was joined in the research by Giancarlo Sturla and Reymundo Gutierrez, both undergraduate students of MIT, and Julie Shah, an assistant professor in CSAIL's Interactive Robotics Group.

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Tags: MIT Robots