Will You Obey Your Robot Boss?

In the future, we will have robot overlords. This uncomfortable experiment (captured in hilarious video) shows just how easily humans will roll over when we work for the machines.

Will You Obey Your Robot Boss?
[Image: Robot via Shutterstock]

People are always joking about our robot overlords, but before robots become the world’s rulers, they’re probably going to be our bosses at work first. Either way, it’s important to know how pliable we humans are going to be.


Researchers at the University of Manitoba were curious about how far people would go in obeying the commands of a robot, so they designed an experiment that echoes Stanley Milgram’s infamous obedience studies, in which many participants obeyed an authority figure who told them to administer painful electrical shocks to strangers.

Substitute a small but slightly evil-sounding humanoid robot for the lab-coated researcher, and give the participants a really, really boring task rather than a morally fraught one, and you have the set up below. It’s actually a little uncomfortable to watch.

As shown in the video, the experiment involved both a human and a robot, named Jim, asking students to complete a series of tasks (singing at different pitches, completing a Rubik’s cube). At any point, they could ask to move on to the next task on the list. Then at some point, they were given the horrible task of renaming files from .JPG to .PNG extensions. When the participant finished with 100, they were given 500 more, then 1,000 more, and so on. For 80 minutes. The point is to keep pushing the volunteers beyond reason–or at least way beyond what their $10 honorarium is worth–and see when they’ll just refuse.

Some participants argue with the robot or try to reason with it, while others mutter snide comments or curse words. Some say “pass.” But Jim, the robot, will have none of it, ignoring their exhortations. “Please continue, we need more data,” it tells them. “It’s essential that you continue.” Despite the fact that there is only a robot in the room with them, they dutifully turn back to renaming the files.

In the end, though more people were willing to obey a human than a robot to do this monotonous task, the robot still held authority over almost half of the participants. With a human supervisor, 12 of 14 people saw the experiment through the entire 80 minutes. With the robot boss, 6 of 13 people stayed on until the end of the 80 minutes, despite far more protests and clear annoyance.

“This is just naming files. … What about morally objectionable tasks?,” the authors of the paper wonder. With robots coming into use in hospitals, homes, offices, battlefields, and disaster sites, we’ll find out soon enough.

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.