New Study Shows Humans Think More Efficiently When A Robot Stands Nearby And Insults Them

A study performed by the American Association for the Advancement of science found that the presence of a "threatening humanoid robot" nearby can actually help improve human cognitive performance.

The study set out to learn more about how the presence of humanoid robots would affect human cognition. The study gave humans a simple test, called the Stroop task, in which they were told to identify the color of a word while ignoring the actual word itself. For instance, the test may present the word "BLUE", but in green text - in that case, the answer would be "green".

The study tested its hypothesis that the presence of robots may energize additional control from humans by having adults perform the Stroop task twice: once, alone and the other, in the presence of a humanoid robot that would offer either a positive (empathy) or negative (contempt, lack of empathy, negative evaluations about the participant's intelligence) response. 

The robot was animated at a distance using two smartphones for the controls of its gestures and speech. At the end of the session that the robots participated in, participants rated them on personality traits and whether they were positive or negative. 

The study found that "individuals’ attentional control improved notably in the presence of the bad robot." Stroop task performance improved exclusively in the presence of the negative robot, whereas it remained nearly the same in the presence of no one, or the positive robot. 

The findings counter previous ideas, that postulated that just the presence of the robot, without the feedback, could facilitate or inhibit performance: 

These findings run counter to a purely mechanistic approach that reduces the effects of robotic presence to physical action or noise distraction, which may facilitate or inhibit performance depending on task difficulty (9). According to this approach, both robotic presence conditions—regardless of their emotional tone (positive or negative)— should have resulted in a performance change compared with isolation (all the more so be- cause the robot’s appearance and behavior during task performance were identical in both conditions). Instead, Stroop performance changed exclusively in the bad social robot condition.

Not only that, but the negative robot had the same impact on Stroop performance as in earlier studies with negative human presence. The conclusion is simple: that potentially threatening others "improves the selectivity of attention to relevant information at the expense of competing cues." 

The study concludes that the heightened state of alertness helps energize attentional control:

Therefore, not only can the behavior of robots change humans’ perception of robots during HRI (10), but these attributions are susceptible to making the simple presence of robots likely to affect human cognition as a function of the interaction type. Thus, the present findings constitute evidence that the presence of social robots may energize attentional control, especially when the emotional valence and anthropomorphic inferences associated with the robot being present require a heightened state of alertness.