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Meet your new Robot Manager

Updated: Jan 8, 2019


Most people assume that robots will be used by people as some type of assistant. In current parlance we call this “AI Augmentation”. We imagine them being cute little robotic Gilligan’s to our Skippers, Radars to our Lieutenant Colonel Blake or Robins to our Batman. But increasingly researchers are wondering if they can be more than assistants. For instance, can they manage humans?


Management is one of the most “human” of jobs because it involves a high level of what organizational psychologists would call “emotional intelligence”. It requires empathy, creativity, judgment, keen insight into human nature, strong communication skills, and the ability to motivate and negotiate. However, recent studies are showing that in some situations robots can actually be almost as effective managers as humans.


In early 2014 a team of researchers at the University of Manitoba set out to study the comparative ability of humans and robots to manage humans in a controlled environment. Test subjects (i.e. people) were broken into two groups and placed individually, one by one, in two separate rooms. In one room another human was there to manage them. In the other room a cute little robot sat at a table.


The goal was to get the test subjects to complete a set of extremely mundane and mind numbing tasks. For instance, one set of tasks required them to manually rename hundreds of computer files one at a time. At the end of each completed batch of files the “manager” (either the human or the robot) would congratulate them and try and motivate them to continue on. If the test subjects complained the “managers” were allowed to use predetermined sets of phrases such as “Just a few more please we are almost done”, “We just need a couple more”, “C’mon, don’t quit yet you can do it” and so on and so forth. Before the start of the test the subjects were told that they could quit at any time.


The results were extraordinary. 86% of the test subjects being managed by the human finished the project while 46% obeyed the robot to the end. Stop for a second and think about that. Almost 50% of the test subjects completed the set of mind numbing tasks while being managed by a 2 foot tall robot when they knew that they could quit at anytime. And an almost 50% success rate on the part of the robot manager is amazing when in my experience I would think that a good 30% of human managers who manage people doing mundane and monotonous tasks probably do not do any better. In college I managed a political campaign outreach center for a summer and I fought, struggled, pleaded and begged to get 50% of our interns to complete the mundane tasks that we gave them.


So the point is that if innovation and advancement in robotics and Artificial Intelligence were to have completely stopped two years ago (which it didn’t!) today many lower level “management” jobs could still be replaced with a $5,000 robot. But of course advancements didn’t stop and I would love to see this test repeated incorporating the advancements in conversational NLP and reasoning that have occurred since.


And while those results are incredible it isn’t what really blew everyone’s minds. The subjects were being videotaped and when you watch the video it takes a few minutes and then it strikes you that the test subjects are interacting with the robots as if they were “human”. They argue, and plead and try and manipulate the robot. They reason with it! For example, when the robot say’s “C’mon, just 500 more” the test subjects try to convince him/her/it that “500 is too many and how about just 200?” What made it eye opening to me wasn’t how “human like” the robot is, because it isn’t really yet, but rather, how willing the humans were to accept the robot as a real sentient being and attribute human qualities to it.


And if a 3 foot white robot can get almost half of its employees to successfully complete their projects today just imagine how effective robots will be when they look, act and move even more like us?


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