If a study recently published in the journal Science Robotics is anything to go by, it's not just machines stealing our jobs we have to worry about. It's humanoid micromanagers watching our every move like a synthetic Bill Lumbergh.
Researchers from the Université Clermont Auvergne have discovered that working under the supervision of a cantankerous robot makes us better employees – even if said robot is just 1 meter (3.3 feet) high.
The team recruited 58 students to take part in the experiment, asking them to complete a test called the Stroop Task. This test is often used to measure focus and requires participants to say the color of the word rather than the word itself. So, if the word blue is displayed in a red pigment, the correct answer would be "red". The quicker the response, the better the score.
But there was a catch. The students were asked to repeat the test. Only this time, they had to complete 60 percent of the test in the presence of a humanoid robot called Meccanoid, who stood just 1.5 meters (5 feet) away.
Before the second test, the students had the chance to "get to know" their robot overlord supervisor by asking it a number of preselected questions. Depending on the setting, the robot responded in a friendly or an antisocial manner.
Take the question "If you were to make a friend, what would you want them to know?”, as an example. The robot might say “I already like him a lot”. (Good robot.) Alternatively, it might retort “That I’m bored”. (Bad robot.) When Meccanoid was on the nice setting, it told jokes. In grumpy mode, it made snarky comments like “I enjoy doing analysis and evaluating programs but you would not understand” or was downright rude with statements like “I do not value friendship”.
It turned out that Meccanoid's "personality" had a major effect on the students' performance when they completed the second test. Those that had met the good-tempered robot finished in a time similar to the first test. Those that had spoken to the bad-tempered robot, however, finished much faster.
“When we were doing the experiment, we saw how a person could be emotionally impacted by the robot,” Nicolas Spatola, lead author and psychologist at the Université Clermont Auvergne in France, told Wired.
“Because the robot is bad, you will tend to monitor its behavior and its movement more deeply because he's more unpredictable.”
It is worth noting that it was a small-scale study. What's more, while robotic supervision appeared to improve volunteers' performance on the Stroop Test, this improvement may not extend to all work-related areas.
Besides, it's not just surly robots that can affect our performance. Researchers notice a similar phenomenon when we are being watched by another human – at least Meccanoid has a turn-off switch.