There is much discussion about the effects of automation on the world of work. The introduction of robots may boost productivity for companies, but recent research suggests that autonomous machines won’t necessarily make humans more efficient. Quite the contrary, in fact.
Researchers from the Technical University of Berlin wanted to determine whether workers put in less effort if they thought their individual contribution would be overshadowed by that of a robot. To do this, they asked 42 volunteers to examine images of electronic circuits for potential errors, and told them a computer would be monitoring their work.
The participants in the study, published in “Frontiers in Robotics and AI”, were also divided into two groups. Members of the first group were asked to look at circuits that had already been inspected by a robot. The others were told that they would be solely responsible for checking the quality of the circuits.
This experimental protocol demonstrated that volunteers working with a machine were less conscientious than others. They tended to detect, on average, 3.3 errors per image, compared with 4.2 for their colleagues working independently.
These results suggest that the first group observed the electronic circuits less carefully than those in the second. “The participants seemed to have maintained the motor effort to search the boards, but it appears the search was carried out with less mental effort and attention to the information being sampled,” the scientists wrote.
“Changes in mental effort are much harder to measure, but need to be minimised to ensure good performance.”
This is why experts believe it’s important to “understand and predict” the consequences that the introduction of robots into the workplace could have on human teams.
Human-machine interactions can facilitate the execution of certain tasks that can be readily automated, but this could lead to a loss of motivation on the part of human workers, who may feel surpassed or overshadowed by the technology.
The same phenomenon can be observed in “100% human” teams and is known as “social loafing”. This concept, theorised by French agricultural engineer Maximilien Ringelmann, defines how individuals tend to reduce the effort they put into a group effort, in proportion to the size of the group.
In other words, the more people come together to work on a project, the less effort they’re likely to put in.
This study shows, for the first time, that social loitering can also apply to human-robot interactions. More research is needed to understand the effects and limitations of this phenomenon regarding the use of artificial intelligence in the world of work.