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Can robots be managers, too?

December 3, 2014 | Telepresence Options


Story and images by ISPR

Robots are starting to enter homes as automatic cleaners, work in urban search and rescue as pseudo teammates that perform reconnaissance and dangerous jobs, and even to serve as pet-like companions. People have a tendency to treat such robots that they work closely with as if they were living, social beings, and attribute to them emotions, intentions, and personalities. Robot designers have been leveraging this, developing social robots that interact with people naturally, using advanced human communication skills such as speech, gestures, and even eye gaze. Unlike the mechanical, factory robots of the past, these social robots become a unique member of our social groups.

One of the primary drivers behind robot development is that robots are simply better than people at some tasks. Traditionally, we think of mundane, repetitive, and precise jobs as clear candidates - robots have already taken over as the primary worker in many factories. However, with perfect memories, internet connectivity, and high-powered CPUs for data analysis, robots can also provide informational support beyond any human capability. Thus, a social robot could keep perfect record of project progress, provide real-time scheduling and decision support, and hold perfect recall (and remind others) of complex policies and procedures, all while communicating with people in a natural, social way. Over time, these robots may become references that we learn to trust, and it is even conceivable that such robots be placed in management-like positions where they can remind a team of deadlines, procedures, and progress.

One key element of a manager is the ability to dole out duties and to have team members perform them; it helps for a manager to be seen as an authority figure. However, if a robot were placed in a managerial position by the higher ups, would it have any actual authority over people? We conducted an experiment at the University of Manitoba to investigate if people would follow a robot's commands to do things, even when they clearly did not want to. That is, if we placed a robot in a position of authority, would people obey it to do something they would rather not do?

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