Giving robots specific personalities in line with the specific task at hand may foster better man-machine interaction. This should in turn help to improve productivity.

Is a Robot’s Personality a Key Factor for Productivity?

Artificial intelligence and man-machine relationships were the inspiration for the film Her, released over a year ago, which portrays a man falling in love with the operating system installed on his computer. Now the latest research may have brought us a step closer to this science-fiction scenario. At the crossroads of computer science and the social sciences, researchers are looking at attributing personalities to robots, just as each human being has an individual personality. As automation and digitisation of in-company tasks increases, might robots endowed with personality be more readily accepted by human workers and have a greater impact on performance than their fellow robots that do not have any real personality? This at any rate is what the results of studies at two universities seem to indicate. The research put ordinary people together with robots with human attributes.

Extrovert and introvert robots

Researchers at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore carried out a study on robots which consisted of giving each of them successively a healthcare worker’s task – first aid, basic medical advice – and a security officer task– surveillance and alarm duty in a building. For both tasks, the researchers attributed two different personalities: an extrovert personality with a talkative robot, and a more reserved personality, with the robot talking more slowly. The objective was to study the reaction of human beings faced with robots embodying different personalities but accomplishing the same task. The results demonstrated that people preferred the more extrovert and communicative personality for the healthcare worker task, while people felt that the more reserved personality was a better fit for the security officer’s job. People felt more at ease and more trusting with one or the other personality depending on which job the robot was doing. This seems to indicate that a robot will have more impact if its behavioural characteristics suit the specific task that it has been given.

Higher performance when robots are involved

If indeed robot ‘personality’ can have a substantial impact on relationships with human beings, this is likely to be even more decisive in the context of everyday life. Robots have been used in firms for some time and the advantages of task automation is no longer in doubt. But how do employees working with robots perceive this relationship? Do they feel threatened by it, or are they at ease? Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab have carried out research designed to assess levels of satisfaction among staff in the workplace with or without robots assisting in the tasks. Results showed that allowing the robot full autonomy in the work process was the most effective approach for any given task, leading to better overall performance than in situations where the human workers were fully in control. It appeared that the algorithm used to programme the robots helped to improve not only basic task planning but also on-the-fly re-planning, i.e. instantly working out an alternative task schedule if, for example a machine malfunctions. Making this kind of adjustment takes a human being much longer.

By Eliane HONG