Study Says Robots Can Pressure Humans To Do Things Against Their Will

It’s a relatively small study, but it sheds an interesting and modern light on our willingness to obey authority.

Robot overlords don’t rule humans yet, but researchers at the Human Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Manitoba in Canada found human subjects will follow a robot’s orders to perform tasks, even when they don’t want to do.

In an experiment studying human-robot interaction and obedience, human subjects were told to perform a number of tasks by a fellow human (the control) and Nao, a childlike humanoid robot made by French company Aldebaran Robotics. The tasks varied from fun (singing a song) to tedious (changing the names of thousands of files). “I surrender,” one subject said exasperated when he finished a batch of 500 files, only to be told by the robot the next batch contained 1,000 files and the one following had 5,000 files.

Under the robot’s authority, six of 13 subjects begrudgingly finished changing file names for 80 minutes. When told by a human to continue their tasks, 12 of 14 subjects did so. But researchers were still intrigued by the persuasive powers the robot had over some of the subjects. Some argued with the robot as if it were a human, and many thought the robot was malfunctioning, yet almost half continued with their tasks.

“Even after trying to avoid the task or engaging in arguments with the robot, participants still (often reluctantly) obeyed its commands,” the researchers wrote. “These findings highlight that robots can indeed pressure people to do things they would rather not do, supporting the need for ongoing research into obedience to robotic authorities.” In some ways, the study is reminiscent of the infamous Milgram experiment, in which test subjects showed a willingness to follow the commands of an authority figure, even when they conflicted with their personal conscience.

About the author

Based in San Francisco, Alice Truong is Fast Company's West Coast correspondent. She previously reported in Chicago, Washington D.C., New York and most recently Hong Kong, where she (left her heart and) worked as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.