Researchers at Cornell University and Hebrew University of Jerusalem made a bid to learn exactly how mixing computers and robot workers would affect people. They came up with some games, added some cash prizes and then had a good old fashioned human vs robot work-off.
The results were less than heartening, it seems.
All was good when the humans could see they were better than their robot cousins – but when they started to lose – things changed dramatically. The paper words it diplomatically as a ‘discouragement effect’.
When the robots began to win, people measurably tried less hard. This was despite the cash prizes still being the same. The paper doesn’t state whether the robots were pre-set to improve over the course of the game or whether they learned to improve in situ. As you probably know it feels different playing an expert from start to finish, to playing someone who starts off worse than you and then during the course of the game improves to the point they are victorious.
The professors running the study drew some human conclusions:
“Think about a cashier working side-by-side with an automatic check-out machine, or someone operating a forklift in a warehouse, which also employs delivery robots driving right next to them,” said Guy Hoffman, assistant professor in the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Cornell.
“While it may be tempting to design such robots for optimal productivity, engineers and managers need to take into consideration how the robots’ performance may affect the human workers’ effort and attitudes toward the robot and even toward themselves.”
More broadly the erosion of ‘protected’ workspaces to mechanisation and automation has been ongoing for nearly a century, and it has been accompanied with the increase in diversity of the work force, and much more importantly – the strong introduction of women as equals in the workplace.
American congress member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said people today fear the system, not necessarily the robots. They are working machines owned by people, after all. However they empower the rich and powerful, and most of us are – despite our protestations – neither. Our system is geared towards eliminating not just waste, but also our very way to make money to survive.
This doesn’t bode well for the coming age of automation.
The study reveals as the robot began to win more regularly humans didn’t merely become discouraged, they actively hated the robot. The frustration engendered by initial losses led to fear that victory was no longer possible.
The humans didn’t personify the machine. Participants knew they were dealing with an economic tool. They did recognise the machine wasn’t trying hard and was ‘going easy’ on them. The feeling of being patronised by the operator of a machine apparently doesn’t make it any less painful.
Surprisingly, offering more money as a prize didn’t cause the humans to try harder.
This suggests that motivation is driven by the role as much as the activity and the economic incentive is removed when it becomes clear that the game is meaningless.
Where does this leave the existing workforce? Will robotics be taxed heavily to create new roles for humans, and retrain them? Will basic income alleviate the coming unemployment crisis? Or will there be a backlash. Perhaps robots will be restricted to heavy industry and leisure pursuits?
The world is changing, perhaps our place in it is in danger?
- Boston Dynamics’ Atlas robot now does parkour (CNET)
- Robots can now complete tasks by simply observing humans (CNET)
- 3 ways robots can support human workers (TechRepublic)
- Robots will not take over most jobs (TechRepublic)