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The Case for Robots as Managers

Most people assume that robots will be used by people as some type of assistant. 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?

As someone who has managed people for years I would like to think that management is one of the most “human” of jobs. It requires empathy, understanding, strong communication skills, expert negotiating skills, the ability to motivate and so on and so forth. However, recent studies are showing that robots can actually be effective managers in many situations.

One such study took place recently at the University of Manitoba where a team of researchers set out to study the comparative ability for humans and robots to manage other humans. 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. At the end of each completed batch of files the “manager” (either the human or the robot) would announce “Great job, now the next 500”. 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 call center for a summer and I fought, struggled, pleaded and begged to get 50% of our interns and low paid staff 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 completely stop today many lower level “management” jobs could still be replaced with a $5,000 robot. But of course the technology will not stop improving.

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”. When the robot tries to get the subjects to finish the task the test subjects argue, reason and negotiate with the ROBOT! 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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