Researchers at Ann Arbor’s U-M Find Human-Robot Teams Work Better When There’s an Emotional Connection

In a new study, researchers at Ann Arbor’s University of Michigan find that groups working with robots develop emotional attachments with the technology, which can improve overall team performance.
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Researchers at the University of Michigan have found that groups working with robots develop emotional attachments with robotic technology and this can improve team performance.
Researchers at the University of Michigan have found that groups working with robots develop emotional attachments with robotic technology and this can improve team performance. // Photo courtesy of the University of Michigan

In a new study, researchers at Ann Arbor’s University of Michigan find that groups working with robots develop emotional attachments with the technology, which can improve overall team performance.

“We found that humans perform better with robotic teammates when they have strong emotional attachment to them,” says Sangseok You, a doctoral candidate at the U-M School of Information who began what he and colleagues believe is the first study of its kind on attachment between groups and robots.

For their study reported in the Journal of the Association for Information Systems, the U-M researchers recruited 114 human participants, assigned to 57 teams with two people and two robots per team. These teams were split into four groups. Some teams were identified by robot, some by team, some by both robot and team, and some by neither. The task was to move five water bottles from one point to another.

Those that were identified by robot and by team all developed emotional attachments to their robot teammates. With the emotional attachment came better performance and team viability.

“This means that organizations like Amazon should invest in approaches that encourage their employees to have some level of emotional attachment with their robotic co-workers,” says You.

One group also was asked to come up with a team name and given jerseys for themselves and their robots to see if identification with a team enhanced attachment. It was only marginally significant.

Among many questions on a multipart survey that sought to gauge attitudes and understanding about robots as well as perceptions of the experiment were: “This robot is dear to me,” “I feel emotionally connected to this robot,” “This team including robots would perform well together in the future,” “If given a choice, I would prefer to continue working in this team, including robots.”

The researchers caution, however, that too much emotional attachment to robots or artificial humans can have drawbacks.

“For example, robots are machines which record their interactions with others,” says senior author Lionel Robert, an associate professor of information and a member of the Michigan Robotics Institute. “Humans that believe they can trust robots in the same way that trust their human co-workers might forget about the video cameras in robots and say or engage in behaviors that might be viewed as unacceptable by the company.”

The researchers say that more research with other types of robots is needed as their study involved embodied physical action robots, or those that look human.

“The distinction between physical robots and virtual bots might be important,” Robert says. “On one hand, we acknowledge that embodied physical action robots are themselves unique, which might explain why emotional attachment led to better performance in ways similar to emotional attachment between human teammates. On the other hand, the findings might be applied to other types of technology beyond EPA robots to chatbots or intelligent agents working with humans that do not have physical bodies.”

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