MIT scientists say people would rather take orders from a robot than their boss


If you need something done at work, just call a robot to do it. New research found that people would rather let a robot give them orders than have their human boss assign them tasks.

Research conducted by MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) found that in a situation where a team of two humans and one robot work towards a common goal, the humans prefer the robots to take charge. The project led by Matthew Gombolay, a PhD student at CSAIL, stressed that having the robots in control doesn't mean they are running the workplace, but rather that the robots assign and coordinate tasks.

Manufacturers are on board with automation in factory work environments, which increase productivity and save humans from exhausting tasks like aisle-running, but there is a concern that workers will feel devalued when working alongside robots.

"In our research we were seeking to find that sweet spot for ensuring that the human workforce is both satisfied and productive," says Gombolay. "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 experiments, a fetching station and an assembling station was set up, where two workers could not work at the same location at the same time to adhere to safety standards. The task at the fetching station was to confirm that the right parts were in a bin, and the task at the assembling station was to put together the pieces. Humans could work at both the fetching and assembling station, but the robot could only work at the fetching.

The researchers than set up three arrangements for control: manual, where all tasks were coordinated by a human workers, and semi-autonomous, where one human worker took on his own tasks and the robot assigned tasks to the second worker, and fully-autonomous, where the robot delegated and coordinated tasks to the workers.

Good thing workers have no problem allowing robots to lead the team because the research found that the autonomous work dynamic was the best way to efficiently get the work goal completed.

"We confirmed that time to generate a schedule and time to execute that schedule was better when the robot had more control," Gombolay says.

The workers were more likely to say "robots better understood them" and "improved the efficiency of the team" compared to their living counterparts.

The researchers confirmed the hypothesis that the level of automation in the workplace affects efficiency significantly. Workers want to do their jobs without have to worry about small management decisions.

The research is part of bigger advances that would allow robots to interact directly with workers in factories.  These arrangements could be applied to other collaborations with humans such as search-and-rescue drones. Robots could also collaborate with humans in fields like construction and even hospitals in the near future.

Photo: Matthew Hurst | Flickr  

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