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15 August 2018

Replacing your boss with a cruel robot could make you concentrate more

A robot looks at a crowd
You better be concentrating

Donat SorokinTASS via Getty Images

Cruel robot overlords get more out of their human subjects than nice ones. The mere presence of an unkind robot seems to improve our cognitive abilities, more than being watched by a friendly robot or even no robot at all.

The effect of a robot observer on human performance was tested using the Stroop task, a test in which words printed in different colours appear on a screen, and test subjects must identify the colour, ignoring the word itself.

We’re usually worse at this – either taking longer to answer or making mistakes – when the colour and the word clash, like when the word “blue” is printed in green letters. To see how a robot would affect the test, Nicolas Spatola at the University of Clermont Auvergne in France and his colleagues added a small humanoid robot perceived either as friendly or mean into the experiment.

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First, participants sat and had a conversation with the robot, which was programmed to answer questions either positively – “I think we could become friends”, or negatively – “I do not value friendship”. Then, they worked on a series of Stroop tasks on a screen, while the robot sat and watched them.

The subjects paired with mean robots were faster and made fewer mistakes than those paired with friendly ones or with no robot at all. “Participants will give more attention to the ‘bad’ robot because maybe it could be dangerous, maybe it could do something that you have not predicted, maybe it could be mean towards you or it judges you,” says Spatola.

That split attention forces the participants to focus only on identifying the colour of the words, and not on actually reading the words. So a cruel robot overlord might make us better at the Stroop task, but it likely wouldn’t be effective in every situation.

“It would be wrong and a bit dystopian to conclude that if we put a bad robot in every place everyone will perform better,” says Spatola. “Imagine a robot sitting in your office insulting you every day – it will not be good for your long-term performance.”

Journal reference: Science Robotics, DOI: 10.1126/scirobotics.aat5843

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