Originally said by George Santayana in a slightly different form, the old saying ‘those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it’ definitely has its merits. But as most sayings tend to, it also has its limitations. For example, if something is repeatedly predicted to happen and we still don’t take heed, does that count?
The issue is that a robot uprising has been thought of for almost a century, if not more, and examples of what might happen are all over pop culture. But according to a test performed by a team of researchers from the Georgia Tech Research Institute, humans blindly follow robots in an emergency.
It wouldn’t necessarily be an issue if the robots were to be proven to be correct, but according to the study, we follow machines regardless if they show us repeatedly that they make mistakes. Despite the worrying nature of the study, it didn’t take into account multiple factors about which I’m going to talk later on.
The Georgia team had a sort of fire drill inside a building during which they attempted to see whether humans would follow an emergency robot towards safety. It might sound good, as of course we’d trust a machine programmed to take us to safety, but the problems started when the robots started making obvious mistakes.
According to a senior researcher with the team,
People seem to believe these robot systems know more about the world than they really do, and that they would never make mistakes or have any kind of fault. In our studies, test subjects followed the robot’s directions even to the point where they might have put them in danger had this been a real emergency.
For the experiment, the team got 40 volunteers to follow a brightly colored “Emergency Guide Robot” as a fake fire drill was started inside the building. The robot quickly started making mistakes, like guiding them to a closed off conference room, to a dead end, or going the opposite way of “EXIT” signs. Still, the volunteers followed it.
Despite it seeming like it was irresponsible or stupid for the participants to do blindly follow the robot, there are several logical reasons as to why they did so. One reason would be that this was what they signed up for. They knew they were supposed to follow a robot, so they did so.
Second of all, there is a sociopsychological phenomenon called diffusion of responsibility. According to it, if in a larger group, people tend to follow the herd, as they assume that if they’re all doing the same thing, it’s the right thing to.
There were several other small things wrong with the way the experiment was performed (a simulated emergency drill would not trigger the individuals’ survival reactions, so they had no reason not to follow the robot), but in the end, it didn’t really accomplish anything.
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