Study: In human vs. robot competitions, humans give up

When the robot was programmed to be slower, people put more effort into it. When the robot was faster, they often just skipped the round.

Pixabay / Pexels

A Cornell-led research team had humans compete with robots doing rote tasks to win cash prizes – and found that when the robot was doing well, the people tended to expend less effort, see themselves as less competent, and have a distaste towards the robots.

The researchers wanted to find out how a robot’s performance influenced humans’ behavior when they were competing against each other. The experiments backed up their theories on loss aversion – meaning people won’t work as hard when their competitors are doing better. It also shed light on how hard – or not – people might work in a human-robot workforce, and how to optimize robot performance in such a workplace.


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“Humans and machines already share many workplaces, sometimes working on similar or even identical tasks,” said Guy Hoffman, senior author of the study and assistant professor in the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, in a release.

“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,” Hoffman said. “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. Our research is the first that specifically sheds light on these effects.”

Not much of a competition

In one experiment, when the robot was programmed to be slower, people put more effort into it, thinking they had more of a chance to win. When the robot was faster, they often just skipped the round.

“In some rounds, the robot would go slower and that’s when I started going faster,” wrote one participant.

“I felt very stressed competing with the robot,” wrote another.

“We were surprised that people found themselves less competent against a fast, competitive robot, even though there’s no direct interaction,” lead author and doctoral student in mechanical engineering Alap Kshirsagar said. “The robot is doing its own work, you’re doing your own work.”

Most people did not view the robot as human, although one participant did write, “It was obvious when the robot was ‘going easy’ on me.”


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Sheila McClear|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at smcclear@theladders.com.