Human workers will take orders from robots, and they will like it

If science fiction has taught us anything, it’s that once humans start taking commands from robot overseers, we’re in trouble.

That’s why researchers at MIT’s artificial intelligence lab expected people to be uncomfortable deferring to a robot to assign them tasks. What they found instead, in an experiment on how humans and robots work in teams, was surprising: People not only didn’t mind when the bot was the boss; they actually preferred it to being in control themselves.

The study, published recently in Robotics: Science and Systems, examined productivity and job satisfaction in environments where people and robots collaborate, such as Amazon fulfillment centers. Computers can figure out a near-optimal plan for allocating tasks among workers and robots in seconds. But the researchers worried that this undermines workers’ senses of autonomy, leading to dissatisfaction and a decreased feeling of usefulness.

To test the theory, they designed an experiment that mimicked a factory setting using Lego sets that had to be brought from a “fetch” station to be assembled at a “build” station. Only a human could assemble the Legos, but either a human or a robot could fetch them.

Tasks were assigned three different ways: manually, in which the human test subject decided which tasks he or she would do and which tasks the robot would do; autonomously, in which all assignment was left up to the computer; and semi-autonomously, in which the human picked the tasks he or she wanted, and the remaining tasks were assigned by the scheduler.

The researchers expected workers to be more productive when a computer assigned tasks, and they were. But this scenario also made workers more satisfied. This might be because the robots were simply better at scheduling, which led to less downtime and an increased feeling of efficiency.

That said, more research is likely needed before real-world conclusions can be drawn. The study’s test subjects were “college students and young professionals whose livelihoods are not threatened by the possibility of robots replacing them.” Employees in professions to which robots pose an imminent threat—an ever-expanding set—might be less inclined to surrender control. And indeed, automated scheduling already makes life difficult for some low-wage hourly workers.

Here’s a video that describes the research in more detail:

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