• Managing people

Working Well with Robots

How an immersive virtual environment can counter robotophobia and help organizations get the best out of AI


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If the business world is to benefit from all the performance aids that artificial intelligence has to offer, people will have to learn to work collaboratively and happily with robots.

In the 2014 film iRobot, robots are supposed to follow three cardinal rules: 1) They cannot harm a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; 2)They must do whatever they're told by a human as long as such orders don't conflict with law one; 3) They have to defend themselves as long as such defence doesn't conflict with laws one or two.

If these rules were followed, perhaps we’d have little to worry about. But iRobot predicts some highly sophisticated automatons – much cleverer than the robots soon to be joining many workforces – and still things went wrong. While humans get used to robots and while robot capability is developing, there will be many understandable reasons why humans will feel uneasy or unsafe, and it will be important for organizations to develop environments and practices that allow their human employees to feel comfortable working with robots.

New research, from University of Michigan professor Vineet R. Kamat and colleagues (see below), which addresses perceived workplace danger from robots through immersive virtual environments, helps employees overcome their fears and collaborate effectively.

Theoretical models to predict and explain perceived safety and its influence on human/robot work collaboration do not yet exist and setting up work situations to prototype human/robot interaction would be expensive and time-consuming. So, using immersive virtual environments provides a simple way to test human reaction in different scenarios.


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Workplace accidents involving robots are in fact extremely rare, but that does not reduce the employees’ perception of danger. Human behaviour is driven by perception. It doesn’t matter what is actually happening or likely to happen, people react to what they think is happening or going to happen.

To address this issue, the research team first developed a theoretical foundation for human/robot collaboration that included three assertions:

  • Employees will feel safer working with a robot if there is a separation between them and the robots.
  • The separation of the work area will promote team identification and trust in the robot, further increasing employees’ perceived safety.
  • The more employees feel safe working with a robot, the more open they will be to working with robots in the future.

The experiment, which involved participants working in a virtual building site, either directly alongside a robot or where a safety fence separated the participant from the robot, confirmed the researchers’ theoretical model. Participants separated from the virtual robot by the fence felt safer, and this perceived safety promoted team identification and trust, and increased the willingness of participants to work with robots in the future.

Two practical applications emerge from this research. First the simple observation that organizations introducing robots to the workforce need to design environments that address the perceived danger as opposed to any real danger. Clearly a safety fence addresses this on a building site but in other situations other forms of separation will be appropriate.

The second practical application is to do with the use of immersive virtual environments; which through this experiment prove to be an effective training tool to help employees become comfortable working with robots before working with them in the real world. An immersive virtual environment is also an effective way to prototype better robots and better use of robots for specific tasks.

The authors of the study were:

Sangseok You, Assistant Professor, Information Systems and Operations Management,  HEC Paris

Jeong-Hwan Kim, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Michigan

Sang Hyun Lee, Associate Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Michigan,

Vineet Kamat, Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Michigan

Lionel P. Robert Jr., Associate Professor of Information, School of Information, University of Michigan

Access the research paper here:

Enhancing perceived safety in human–robot collaborative construction using immersive virtual environments. Sangseok You, Jeong-Hwan Kim, SangHyun Lee, Vineet Kamat & Lionel P. Robert. Automation in Construction (2018).

Corporate cliches are for yesterday’s business. Today's business calls for a new kind of leadership, one that sees beyond yesterday’s cliches and creates meaningful change, the kind of change that yields long-term, sustainable results.



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