‘Robot overlords’: Coming our way soon?

By Hamza Ali, special to CNBC.com
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It's doubtful you ever imagined taking orders from robot bosses.

However, a new study by MIT has found that we are not only are we willing to allow robots to give commands, but that we prefer robot orders to that of humans.

"Our findings showed that our subjects strongly preferred when the robot scheduled the work of the team. Scheduling is an inherently difficult mathematical problem. While scheduling is not a natural ability for many people, new computational methods have given robots the ability to perform this coordination of resources quite well," Matthew Gombolay, lead author of the research, told CNBC via email.

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The study concludes: "Rather than finding an ideal balance of control authority to maximize worker satisfaction, we observed that workers preferred to give control authority to the robot."

This new study, while interesting, does not mean "robot overlords" Says Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation, a robotics industry body was quick to point out.

Future of robots at work
Future of robots at work

"If a computer doing the scheduling work is more efficient and you do a better job because of it, then sure, but the computer or a robot is still a tool a human being has control over, whether they programmed it or are utilizing it because they think it makes sense."

Robots get gentler not just smarter

An earlier study at MIT, headed by Stefanos Nikolaidis, currently a PhD candidate at CMU Robotics Institute, found that there is a desire for gentler robots that could increasingly fit with human environments.

"We will see increasingly robots at home, in health care and in cars. At home, robots will be helping humans with household chores." Says Nikolaidis.

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"In close-proximity cooperation with people, the robot should be able to perceive the actions of the human, learn models of the human behavior and incorporate these models when taking actions."

This would be crucial in combating one of the main barriers, the technical challenge of creating safe environments for robots and humans to work more co-operatively.

Off the assembly floor

The research which aimed to look at how humans and robots can better work together comes amid calls by some industry experts for a collaborative work place, where humans and robots work side by side, to match the evolving capabilities of robots.

"Traditionally, people have thought about robots as being caged-off, physically separated from human work. There is a new push to remove the cage around these large, industrial robots and allow them to work alongside their human counterparts." Says Gombolay.

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"The technology is at such a point, where robots can work side-by-side with humans and no longer have to be kept away behind fences and cages." Says Burnstein.

"That means the robots can be outside of factories and in all sorts of environments. We're seeing that now and expect that trend to continue."

It's inevitable that as robots become more and more autonomous, questions about where robotic labor can best be utilized will be asked, but where ever that line is there has to be some upside to a boss with an off switch.

By Hamza Ali, special to CNBC.com: Follow him @Hamza_M_Ali