According to Cornell University-led research, when robots defeat humans in contests with monetary prizes, humans tend to expend less energy on their efforts because they feel less competent than the robots, which, in turn, leads to an overall dislike of the robots — findings that could eventually impact human-robot relations in the workplace.

The study, which was conducted by behavioral economists and roboticists, observed the impact of robot performance on human behavior and human reaction when simultaneously competing against one another. What the team discovered confirmed what behavior economists had theorized about human aversion to loss, suggesting that people won’t work as hard against competitors who are performing better.

To reach that conclusion, robots and humans were given the same task to complete — counting how often the letter “G” would appear in a string of characters and placing a block in a bin corresponding to the frequency of its appearance. The humans' chances of defeating robots, which were on display, were dictated by a lottery based on the difference between the human’s scores and the robot’s scores. Following each round, the humans answered questionnaires, assigning ratings to their robot competitors in terms of robot likability, robot competence and the participant’s own competence. When robots performed better, humans tended to rate their own competence lower, the robot’s competence higher and the robot’s likability lower.

Such a finding could potentially, according to the team, prepare human employees to better work alongside robots in the future.

"Humans and machines already share many workplaces, sometimes working on similar or even identical tasks," said Guy Hoffman, assistant professor in the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

"Think about a cashier working side-by-side with an automatic check-out machine, or someone operating a forklift in a warehouse which also employs delivery robots driving right next to them," Hoffman said. "While it may be tempting to design such robots for optimal productivity, engineers and managers need to take into consideration how the robots' performance may affect the human workers' effort and attitudes toward the robot and even toward themselves. Our research is the first that specifically sheds light on these effects."

The study, Monetary-Incentive Competition Between Humans and Robots: Experimental Results, appears in the journal SSRN.

To contact the author of this article, email