People Actually Prefer Taking Orders from Robots

August 26, 2014

Here’s something new – people actually prefer being led by AI, according to an MIT study. Who would have guessed? After all those Hollywood horror stories and all the scoffing at mindless unemotional robots, it turns out we actually like artificial intelligence.

Monkey bars in Kinuta Park - June 1, 2014

Monkey bars in Kinuta Park – June 1, 2014 (Enlarge)

The study involved complex assembly on a factory floor. When the human workers were instructed by a robot, they “reported feeling at their most efficient and effective.” It’s interesting that the human workers weren’t necessarily more efficient, but they did feel more efficient. That’s the cool thing, because we’ve always known machines were efficient. Only now are they saying that we like machines, too.

Well, what’s the explanation? One of the commenters asked this key question, and the article was disappointingly silent on “why they were happier with the AI Overlords.” So let’s brainstorm a bit. Maybe factory workers would prefer working under a robot foreman because:

  1. They like being more efficient. Workers prefer a skilled boss who actually knows what he’s doing.
  2. Workers never really want to be friends with their boss, anyway. Many bosses try to be friendly and create a cheerful workplace atmosphere, but the workers sense that this buddy-buddy managerial style is mostly fake. So it’s refreshing to have a robot boss who doesn’t give you any bullshit.
  3. The human workers aren’t in any kind of emotional competition with the AI, so they don’t feel any resentment about being in a subordinate position. Maybe they don’t even feel they’re in a subordinate position at all, because the robot doesn’t count as an actual person.

I’m particularly interested in that third suggestion. People don’t resent it when a machine tells them to do something. For example, suppose you’re driving and the car suddenly tells you it needs gas. You might be annoyed about that, but you won’t be annoyed at the car. You’ll just be annoyed at the basic fact of needing gas. It’s not a personal thing, and it’s not any kind of rivalry between you and the car.

See, there’s a lot of emotional competition between human beings, and there’s a lot of push and shove when one person wants something and the other does not. That’s because people are in competition with each other, or at least they often see themselves as being in competition. In the car example with the empty gas tank, though, you don’t think the car’s “personal needs” are in competition with your own personal needs.

You don’t think the car is being lazy or whiny or morally weak or anything like that. Also, you know you can’t persuade the car to “try a little harder” and go without a fill-up. That’s because machines are generally a lot less flexible than biological life-forms such as humans. Machines aren’t trying at all, much less trying hard. The machine does not “want” a fill-up at the gas station, but it’s merely informing you about an objective fact. As a result, you do not feel any emotional rivalry with the machine.

What about with real AI?

This happy situation will change, of course, when we get real artificial intelligence machines. True AI will really try, and it will want its own wants. That’s what true AI means, after all. If it didn’t try and want, it wouldn’t be true AI.

We humans might find ourselves in real competition with a real AI! And at that point, there will indeed be rivalry between humans and machines. Lots of resentment and emotional tantrums. I’m actually looking forward to the tantrums. If we’re lucky, there will be irritation and frustration and resentment on both sides!