UM Study: Human Connections to Robots in the Workplace Can Be Harmful

A study from the University of Michigan showed that too close ties between human workers and robots can lead to separation from other human colleagues. // Courtesy of the University of Michigan

A new study from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea shows that the assistance robots provide to humans in a work environment can lead to the development of a strong emotional bond.

Research has indicated that such ties can be detrimental as workers become more attached to the robot than their co-workers. Human-robot teams can also split into subgroups that function more like two competing teams, rather than an overall cohesive team, the study showed.

“This topic remains relatively unexplored despite the potential importance of subgroups in human-robot teams,” says Lionel Robert, study co-author and associate professor at the UM School of Information.

Robert and lead author Sangseok You, an assistant professor at Sungkyunkwan University, conducted two studies. One was a quantitative randomized experimental study in the laboratory and the other a qualitative study with data collected from field workers and managers who work with robots on a daily basis.

In the lab study, 88 people were assigned to 44 teams, each made up of two humans and two robots, who would move bottles from different points in a competition. Participants answered questions about their performance and their bond with their human and robot partners.

Among the results: When humans connected more with the robot, a subgroup within matched teams emerged, which negatively impaired the quality and performance of teamwork.

The second study aimed to obtain recommendations to mitigate the negative effects of subgroups while improving the work environment. The 112 respondents in this sample — who came from a variety of industries, from manufacturing and sales, to hospitals, financial consulting and others — managed others who worked directly with robots. They answered questions about how to ensure good working relationships between human colleagues in human-robot teams.

The results showed that training, improving communication between humans, and leadership mitigated the effects of subgroups that undermined performance. For example, respondents had more social interactions, such as attending picnics and sporting events, and taking coordinated breaks with human colleagues.

“When employers have a greater connection with each other rather than with robots, the quality of teamwork is high,” You says.


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