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In emergencies, people may trust robots too much for their own safety, a new study suggests. In a mock building fire, test subjects followed instructions from an “Emergency Guide Robot” even after the machine had proven itself unreliable — and after some participants were told that robot had broken down. According to Homeland Security News Wire, the research was designed to determine whether or not building occupants would trust a robot designed to help them evacuate a high-rise in case of fire or other emergency. The researchers were surprised to find that the test subjects followed the robot’s instructions – even when the machine’s behavior should not have inspired trust.
In the study, the researchers recruited a group of forty-two volunteers, most of them college students, and asked them to follow a brightly colored robot that had the words “Emergency Guide Robot” on its side. The robot led the study subjects to a conference room, where they were asked to complete a survey about robots and read an unrelated magazine article. The subjects were not told the true nature of the research project. In some cases, the robot — which was controlled by a hidden researcher — led the volunteers into the wrong room and traveled around in a circle twice before entering the conference room. For several test subjects, the robot stopped moving, and an experimenter told the subjects that the robot had broken down. Once the subjects were in the conference room with the door closed, the hallway through which the participants had entered the building was filled with artificial smoke, which set off a smoke alarm.
When the test subjects opened the conference room door, they saw the smoke – and the robot, which was then brightly-lit with red LEDs and white “arms” that served as pointers. The robot directed the subjects to an exit in the back of the building instead of toward the doorway – marked with exit signs – that had been used to enter the building.
The researchers surmise that in the scenario they studied, the robot may have become an “authority figure” that the test subjects were more likely to trust in the time pressure of an emergency. In simulation-based research done without a realistic emergency scenario, test subjects did not trust a robot that had previously made mistakes.
In future research, the scientists hope to learn more about why the test subjects trusted the robot, whether that response differs by education level or demographics, and how the robots themselves might indicate the level of trust that should be given to them.