Robots can bring energy and effectiveness to the workplace. They just have to mimic more human behaviors.

Anxieties about whether machines will take our jobs will soon be a thing of the past. Robots are already here, adding new dimensions to the way we live and function, and researchers are exploring how to create intelligent machines that work better with us as opposed to taking our place. Guy Hoffman (@guyhoffman), assistant professor and Mills Family Faculty Fellow in the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, is studying how a working robot’s behavior can influence its human colleagues. The robots he designs lean forward to show they are listening to human interlocutors, and when they hear music, they nod in response to the beat. Hoffman’s work indicates that subtle changes in a robot’s actions have a positive effect on the humans around it. MIT Sloan Management Review spoke with him about his research to probe what his findings imply for managing human-robot teams.

MIT Sloan Management Review: Why do robots need to understand human body language and guess our intentions?

Hoffman: Robots have traditionally been designed to carry out preprogrammed behaviors. But increasingly, researchers in my field are thinking about modeling human intentions and taking human needs into account. In the past, a robot would perform a fixed action and the human had to adapt to it, but now we want the robot and the human to adapt mutually to each other. For this to happen, the robot has to solve a lot of really hard problems that for us are almost intuitive, which is to guess what we’re trying to do or what personality type we have or which mood we might be in. When we encounter people at work, we very quickly make judgments about their personalities and change our behavior accordingly. Having a robot able to do this is crucial if it’s to become a similarly good team member.

What part do emotions play in human-robot interactions?

Hoffman: Robots have the capacity to affect our behavior emotionally in that they’re using a physical body, they’re sharing space with us, they’re moving in our surroundings.