Can A Robot Be A Good Colleague: New Study On Smooth Human : Robot Interaction


Humans and humanoids can have a smooth interaction while working together, predicts the latest study by the Tampere University in Finland. The study, published in the Biological Psychology Journal, found out that making eye contact with a robot may have the same effect on people as making eye contact with another human being. 

Previous researches had found out that when a human makes eye contact with another human, it elicits affective reactions and attention-related psychophysiological responses. Since a similar observation was made when humans make eye-contact with a humanoid, it was indicative of a smooth interaction between the two. 

What is the significance of the study and what this could mean for the future of human-robot collaboration or augmented intelligence?

What are the findings?

The study analysed the movement of muscles on a participant’s face and their heart rate when another human or a humanoid robot made eye contact.



The study observed a similar movement in terms of facial expressions and a slight reduction in the heart rate in both cases. Since these reactions are usually induced in human beings when targeted by a ‘mind’ of another human being, it can be suggested that human beings implicitly ascribe mental attributes to a robot when making eye-contact.

In addition to this, the study observed that the responses in humans were greater in magnitude when the humanoid robot looked directly at the participant’s eyes than when it averted its gaze. This result is suggestive that a robot’s direct gaze triggers more positive reactions than an averted gaze. A direct gaze, thus, only provokes a positive attitude in the observer towards the robot but also evokes a positive emotion within the human itself.

However, even though a person develops implicit reactions to social cues displayed by a robot, the study showed that the person does not develop an explicit likeability, anthropomorphism or perceived intelligence towards the robot.

What is the significance of these findings? 

In the current era, as humans and robots work together, it is important to consider what sort of impact it has on humans. A change in the work environment where humans are made to work with robots, replacing other human colleagues, might induce fear, inferiority, loneliness, or losing the sense of achievement. Some of the findings in this study make a significant contribution to addressing these issues.

“I think it is essential for humans not to feel inferior to robots. If humans work together with robots but feel inferior to the robots, this will probably make the work feel less meaningful to the human workers,” said Dr Sven Nyholm, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the Utrecht University. “The humans might feel a loss of purpose and a diminished sense of achievement if they feel that robots are doing the most critical work.

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So, whether robots with apparently superior abilities are a threat to meaningful work might depend on whether or not humans feel to be participating in teamwork together with the robots.

Hence, Dr Nyholm believes that if eye contact with a robot makes the interaction more smooth, this might strengthen the subjective sense of working together with a robot as a form of a human-robot team. 

Another essential factor that determines whether people find their work meaningful is having good colleagues. A paper written by Dr Nyholm, ‘Can a robot be a good colleague’, argues that robots can live up to many criteria associated with behaviours of a good colleague. 

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Thus, if a robot were to replace a human, then structurally if it has eyes and behaviourally if it is trained to make eye-contact with the human worker, then it can help develop a positive emotion towards the robot. This can make the robot a better colleague, making work more meaningful.

At the same time, however, Dr Nyholm thinks that there might be an interesting psychological tension at play. “On an emotional level, the human might experience the robot as if it has eyes and can make eye contact, however, on an intellectual level, the person might think that it is just a machine, and machines do not really have eyes to make eye contact with,” said Dr Nyholm.

This is in line with the findings of how the robot’s perceived likeability and anthropomorphism by a person’s implicit reactions did not correlate with their explicit perception of the robot. 

Hence there is a possibility that one might feel a sense of achievement and purpose based on the work done as a team, however, at the same time feel that they are being outperformed, said Dr Nyholm.

Wrapping Up

To get the maximum benefit from the use of intelligent robots or AI, research across sectors has concluded augmented intelligence to be the most optimum. Hence, as the number of human-robot collaborations increases, different ways to make this partnership more efficient should be researched and implemented.

This study makes a case for designing robots that have the ability to establish eye contact with humans. This might enhance pleasant experiences in social interaction between humans and robots, which, in turn, might smoothen robots’ integration to human societies.

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