How do we feel about having robots for colleagues?

robot-friendRobots have long been a companion of human workers in factories around the world, but they are increasingly becoming a presence in service environments too, whether it’s cooking food, serving customers or helping guests.

A recent study from researchers at TU Darmstadt set out to examine just how people feel about their new robot colleagues.  The results provide a telling glimpse into just how welcome our new robot colleagues might be.

For instance, it emerged that people were much more supportive of robotic assistance when the robots were doing mundane and routine tasks.

Cultural comparisons

The researchers set out to examine whether there may exist cultural differences in the acceptance of robotic colleagues between German and American workers, but there appeared to be a degree of homogeneity in the responses.

For instance, over 60% of respondents could easily imagine being supported by a robotic colleague, with 21% even suggesting such a change would be an improvement, with this largely due to the belief that a robot would be less error prone and more predictable in their behavior.

There was a strong appreciation of the so called ‘uncanny valley’ however, with respondents revealing that they don’t want robots to start displaying emotions.

This is further reflected in the belief that whilst robots are great at routine tasks, more complex endeavors are beyond them.  This is especially true of things such as leadership, with very few respondents willing to consider a robot boss.

“A robot has no empathy for my family situation or other concerns that radiate into the job” they would say. “A machine cannot judge a man… and cannot serve as role model,” they continue.

They took our jobs

Of course, no study in this field would be complete without an examination of the impact of robotics on the labor market, and the authors are sensibly optimistic that new jobs will of course be created, just as existing jobs may become automated.  Indeed, it’s likely to be the companies that adapt most successfully to this shift that will thrive.

The paper goes as far as to suggest that robotics may herald a new service era, with many of the respondents in the study more than happy to be serviced by a robot.  When this was tested in a live environment, customers who were served by a reception robot gave them nearly identical customer satisfaction ratings to those served by a human receptionist.

Interestingly however, whilst many respondents could easily see robots being useful in these kind of situations, they were much less keen on robots being deployed in more sensitive areas, such as healthcare or complex financial consultations.

It’s clear that we’re still coming to grips with the role robots will play in our lives, and I’m sure the perspectives shared in this report will change as the technology itself changes.  It is nonetheless an interesting perspective on the mood at the current time however.

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