Robots are becoming more common and more sophisticated by the day, but can we really trust them to help people in emergency situations?
Engineers are continuing to push the envelope in robotics technology, and machines that can perform a wide variety of tasks are popping up all over the place. One of the hottest fields right now is the development of robots that can be used in emergency situations, where humans or rescue animals would otherwise not be able to help.
According to a report from Gizmodo, however, a recent study from scientists at Georgia Tech suggests that there is a human tendency to trust robots even if they aren’t particularly good at their advertised job.
Volunteers in the study participated in a simulated emergency, in which they followed a “rescue robot” into a closed and abandoned room to die. The study suggests that only by ensuring that robots are meticulously programmed to do their designated job will humans’ trust be warranted. In other words, if a robot fails in an emergency situation, you may be out of luck.
According to one of the study’s co-authors, Alan Wagner, “People seem to believe that these robotic systems know more about the world than they really do, and that they would never make mistakes or have any kind of fault. In our studies, test subjects followed the robot’s instructions even to the point where it might have put them in danger had this been a real emergency.”
To test the human bias towards trusting robots, scientists deliberately made the machines falter in the simulated emergency situations. The robot was equipped with wheels and LED lights. It guided people into a conference room, but would often make meaningless detours and pauses to make it glaringly obvious that something wasn’t right.
When the participants entered the conference room, they were told to read a magazine and take a survey while scientists filled the hallway with fake smoke and setting off the fire alarm. The researchers found that people followed the robot despite the clearly marked exit sign on the door through which they entered.
In another round of tests, the guide robot led participants into a dark room blocked off by furniture. Only one third of the participants trusted their better judgment and left the robot behind when the emergency situation became apparent.
While it’s always best to trust your instincts in an emergency situation, the idea of a rescue robot could still one day take hold. The study highlights the need to test and fix bugs in rescue machines, and for people to remain skeptical until the technology is truly free of fault.
A press release from the Georgia Institute of Technology describing the recent paper can be found here.