Robots aren’t always nice, and that’s sometimes good


Studies raise concerns over robot influence on children, but find hostile behaviour can improve adult performance. Ben Lewis reports.


Robots are being deployed in schools, but their influence on children raises questions.
Robots are being deployed in schools, but their influence on children raises questions.
Donald Iain Smith / Getty Images

Robots can exert peer pressure on kids, and make adults concentrate harder at work by acting in ways interpreted as mean, according to two new pieces of research published in the journal Science Robotics.

In the first study, researchers led by Anna-Lisa Vollmer from Bielefeld University in Germany found that children are more likely than adults to give in to peer pressure from robots.

This is significant because robots are already being used in classrooms, and are increasingly being designed to interact with kids.

To investigate whether robots could exert peer pressure, Vollmer and her colleagues asked 60 adults to do a visual task which had specific correct or incorrect answers. The participants did the task alone, or with three humans or humanoid robots in the room. The humans and robots tried to sway each participant’s response to the question by unanimously giving the incorrect answer in about two-thirds of the cases.

While the adults could be influenced by the humans, they stuck to their own answers when the pressure came from robots.

When children aged between seven and nine completed the task, however, they went along with what the robots were telling them. In 74% of cases their incorrect answers were word-for-word what the robots had said.

With only around 20 participants in each group though, a larger study will be needed to see whether the trend holds.

And adults aren’t completely immune to influence from robots. In a second paper, Nicolas Spatola from the Universite Clermont Auvergne in France examined the effect that robots have on concentration, and found that one which acts a bit mean can boost concentration.

Using a standard attention test called the Stroop task, which involves people identifying the colour of the type in which a word is written, rather than the word itself, Spatola and colleagues studied the influence of robots positioned to watch volunteers taking the test. Some of the machines were programed to respond nicely, others rudely.

Surprisingly, the people doing the concentration test performed better when the robot acted unpleasantly. Nice robots had no significant effect.

The researchers believe the result arises from a natural reaction to a nearby potential threat. Essentially, the unpleasant robot increased the participants’ states of alertness, resulting in better concentration.

  1. http://robotics.sciencemag.org/lookup/doi/10.1126/scirobotics.aat7111
  2. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563216304332
  3. http://robotics.sciencemag.org/lookup/doi/10.1126/scirobotics.aat5843
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