"Teamwork is a mixed blessing."

Group Project

Human employees may be getting a little too used to their robot co-workers.

New research finds that when we work alongside a robot, we tend to get a little lazier — just like how some of us will take it easy knowing that a diligent colleague will pick up the slack.

The research, published in the journal Frontiers in Robotics and AI, suggests that this so-called "social loafing" is a sign that humans are finally seeing robots as their teammates, for better or worse.

"Teamwork is a mixed blessing," study co-author Dietlind Helene Cymek, a researcher at the Technical University of Berlin, said in a statement about the work. "Working together can motivate people to perform well but it can also lead to a loss of motivation because the individual contribution is not as visible."

Meat Loaf

For the experiment, the researchers directed participants to inspect images of circuit boards for manufacturing defects, so the researchers could precisely track their work.

One group was told the boards had already been inspected by a robot, which they could hear working nearby. The other group thought they were working alone.

The findings? That those working with the robot missed more defects and had significantly higher error rates — even though both parties spent about the same amount of time inspecting the boards.

Kathleen Richardson, a professor of ethics of culture and AI at De Montfort University in the UK, says that the results were likely in part a symptom of considering robots to be colleagues rather than tools.

"This anthropomorphism is getting out of hand, honestly," Richardson, who was not involved in the study, told New Scientist. "It's this idea that there is a collaborative process going on that I reject," she added.

"It just strikes me that workers are doing what they've always done, which is in situations where they think a tool can do something, they let it," she added.

Pay Me!

The researchers believe that this kind of social loafing could be dangerous. The last thing you'd want, after all, is someone whose job it is to double check things for safety to be less thorough.

But Richardson suggests that bad management could be the real culprit.

"I bet you if there was an incentive behind it, and if the humans could get an extra bonus for spotting [errors in] the chips, then they'd put a bit more effort into it," she told New Scientist.

Outside the workplace, this unconscious phenomenon, where our brains sort of go on autopilot when a robot is assisting us with a task, can arguably be seen in the realm of self-driving cars.

Wherever it's used, it's worth being just as cautious with tech that automates important tasks.

More on workplace robots: $75,000 FDNY Robodog Goes to Work, Falls Over Almost Immediately

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