Robo Life Coach
How could your employer make your workday less miserable? More breaks, a more reasonable workload, or just a bump in salary? Well, screw all that noise: have some “robot wellbeing coaches” instead.
Yes, really: In a series of experiments that involved having wellbeing robots interact with employees in mandatory sessions researchers found that how well a robot boosts employee morale depends on at least one essential factor: how cute they are.
“We wanted to take the robots out of the lab and study how they might be useful in the real world,” said study first author Micol Spitale, a computer scientist at Cambridge University, in a press release about his team’s findings, presented at the International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction.
Over the course of four weeks, 26 employees attended weekly well-being sessions led by two different kinds of robots. The robots would go around the group, ask each employee to recall a positive experience, and follow up with more questions. Both robots spoke the same script, had the same voice, and used the same facial expressions.
The difference? The robots’ bodies. The researchers found that the adorable, toy-like robot, in this case a specific model called Misty, proved best at fostering a connection with employees.
They speculate that the unassuming appearance of Misty — which stands at only 14 inches tall and has a limbless body the shape of a stunted vacuum cleaner — caused the humans interacting with it to have lower expectations for the poor thing. Ouch.
Conversely, the more humanoid robot QT, at nearly three feet tall, inspired higher expectations from employees. This invariably only left them more disappointed when they found out that no, it can’t talk with you like a real human.
The researchers explained in their press release that people’s expectations of the robot “didn’t match with reality.” The study’s coauthor Hatice Gunes, a professor of Affective Intelligence and Robots at Cambridge, elaborated: “We programmed the robots with a script, but participants were hoping there would be more interactivity.”
But, they explained, it’s hard to come up with a robot right now that has a natural conversationalist’s ability, but developing technology in large language models may soon help with this. That said, overall, the researchers noted that employees actually found taking the wellbeing exercises from a robot helpful.
“The robot can serve as a physical reminder to commit to the practice of wellbeing exercises,” explained Gunes. “And just saying things out loud, even to a robot, can be helpful when you’re trying to improve mental wellbeing.”