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The Covid crisis has amplified the need to feel good at work, whether at the office or at home working remotely. A concern that HR managers are taking increasingly seriously. Researchers at the University of Cambridge advise them to use robots to help them take care of their employees.
A research team conducted an experiment in a technology consulting firm. She asked 26 employees to participate in weekly robot-led wellness sessions for four weeks. All of these “coaches” had identical voices, facial expressions and scripts to conduct these sessions. “We interviewed different wellness coaches and then programmed our robots to have a coach-like personality, with an open mind and a conscientious nature”explained Minja Axelsson, doctoral candidate in computer science at the University of Cambridge and co-author of the studyin a press release.
However, the scientists found that study participants interacted with the robot differently based on its physical appearance. Indeed, people who did wellness exercises in the company of a toy-like robot said they felt closer to their “coach” than those who trained with a humanoid-looking machine. This difference in perception can be explained, in part, by the extremely varied representations of robots in all areas of pop culture, and in particular in the cinema. Some like Wall-e, R2-D2, and Astro are portrayed as good and helpful, while others are of a much more human-threatening nature.
Robots, less autonomous beings than it seems
But Cambridge University researchers also hypothesize that we unconsciously project expectations onto robots based on their physical appearance. The toy-like robotic beings look much easier to use than the machines sporting a humanoid form. The latter are so glaringly realistic that they give the illusion of being autonomous subjects, capable of carrying on a conversation with anyone. “We programmed the bots using a script, but the participants were hoping for greater interactivity. It is incredibly difficult to create a bot that can hold a natural conversation. New developments in the area of language models to large scale could really be beneficial in this respect”said Hatice Gunes, professor of affective intelligence and robotics at the University of Cambridge and lead author of the study, in a statement.
Regardless, study participants were generally satisfied with their coaching sessions in the presence of a robot and say they would be willing to try the experience again in the future. Valuable lessons for companies, at a time when mental and physical well-being has become a criterion of choice for job candidates.