Study finds that human subjects prefer when robots give the orders

August 22, 2014 by Adam Conner-Simons
Giancarlo Sturla and Matthew Gombolay (front) collaborating with the PR2 robot on an assembly task. Credit: Jason Dorfman/CSAIL

If you've seen a sci-fi flick with autonomous robots in the last 40 years, you may be wary of giving robots any semblance of control.

But new research coming out of MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) suggests that letting robots have control over human tasks in manufacturing is not just more efficient—it's actually preferred by workers.

While manufacturers have long recognized the benefits of automation in streamlining processes and freeing humans from tedious tasks, such as aisle-running, there's always a concern that workers may feel devalued or even replaceable.

"In our research we were seeking to find that sweet spot for ensuring that the human workforce is both satisfied and productive," says project lead Matthew Gombolay, a PhD student at CSAIL. "We discovered that the answer is to actually give machines more autonomy, if it helps people to work together more fluently with teammates."

Specifically, in the study, groups of two humans and one robot worked together in one of three conditions: manual (all tasks allocated by a human); fully autonomous (all tasks allocated by the robot); and semi-autonomous (one human allocates tasks to self, and a robot allocates tasks to other human).

The fully-autonomous condition proved to be not only the most effective for the task, but also the method preferred by human workers. The workers were more likely to say that the robots "better understood them" and "improved the efficiency of the team."

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See how CSAIL researchers experiment with human-robot collaboration in the workspace.

Gombolay emphasizes that giving robots control doesn't mean a team of cyborgs will be running the show. It means the tasks are delegated, scheduled, and coordinated via a human-generated algorithm.

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

The algorithm can also conduct on-the-fly replanning, instantly developing an alternate "schedule" for a task if, say, a new part arrives or a machine malfunctions—a clear advantage over its human counterparts, who generally require time to call an audible.

The research—developed by Gombolay, MIT undergraduates Reymundo Gutierrez and Giancarlo Sturla, and assistant professor Julie Shah in the Interactive Robotics Group at CSAIL— is part of a long line of recent advances that allow robots to interact in less predictable environments, and to therefore collaborate directly with human workers in factory settings.

Gombolay says that, in the future, similar algorithms could be applied to human-human collaboration (like scheduling hospital resources), search-and-rescue drones, and even one-on-one, -robot collaboration in which the robot could help someone with discrete building and construction tasks.

Explore further: Epson to unveil autonomous dual-arm robot that sees, senses, thinks, and reacts

More information: The paper is available online:

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not rated yet Aug 22, 2014
Of course humans prefer robots giving directions. Just like when my Google maps spits out commands like "Turn left!". Because they do it always with a happy face in a nice voice. Really, it's no emotion at all. But always better than a nagging back seat driver, because that makes us irritated and emotional.

I am not saying that we should turn to robots from now on. Rather, we should work on getting along better together with give-and-take and patience and love.
5 / 5 (1) Aug 22, 2014
Verkle is correct that the emotion of the human has a lot to do with them being more comfortable taking direction from a robot/program. You may not like your boss, or you may resent him, or he could be inconsistent, you might be jealous of him, etc. The robot/algorithym give you information based on facts and probabilities that have been tested, and this give you peace of mind, as opposed to taking direction from a human who does not have the same consistent performance. Its just like any job, though. I know I would much prefer to have tasks laid out for me, than to have to figure how to do them, when to do them, which one takes priority, etc. But there is something great about a person with advanced technology working together, you get the precision of technology, and hopefully some compassion and creativity from the human.
5 / 5 (1) Aug 22, 2014
workers prefer robots to mid management, - and this is surprising ??

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