Being watched by a cranky robot might help you focus

Do humanlike robots give you the heebie-jeebies? You’re far from alone. But according to a new study, this wariness could be beneficial, improving your focus on the task at hand.

As humanoid bots are becoming more common in our day-to-day lives, scientists want to understand how their mere presence affects our thinking and behavior.

Researchers gave 58 people a common test for measuring focus, in which they were shown a series of words printed in different colors and were asked to identify the color, ignoring the word itself. How quickly they responded determined their score. Subjects took the test twice—first alone, and then with a new set of words while a humanlike robot stood 1.5 meters away and “watched” them for 60% of the task.

Before the test, subjects acquainted themselves with the robot, asking it a series of prewritten questions. The robot was programmed to respond with either friendly, positive answers, or abrasive, negative ones.

Subjects exposed to the “bad” robot finished the test faster than when they were alone, the researchers report today in Science Robotics. However, the group that interacted with the “good” robot didn’t show any increase in speed. 

That might be because people in the presence of the cranky robot have a raised state of alertness that improves their focus, the researchers say. Previous studies have shown the same effect with judgmental humans—this is the first study to examine the phenomenon with robots.

So the next time a robot makes you a little nervous, don’t fret—it might be a good time to cross some things off your to-do list.