The Problem With Robots: People Trust Them Too Much

“Georgia Tech researchers created a mock building fire, then watched to see if people would follow an ‘Emergency Guide Robot’ to safety… Test subjects in the experiment followed the machine even when it directed them toward a dark room that was blocked by furniture. They even trusted the robot after they were told it had broken down. The research was designed to study how much people would trust robots in emergency situations.” J. Toon,

ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post with Answer Key

Emergency Guide Robot

Emergency Guide Robot


Excerpt: In Emergencies, Should You Trust a Robot? John Toon, Georgia Tech

“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. But 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. The research, believed to be the first to study human-robot trust in an emergency situation, is scheduled to be presented March 9 at the 2016 ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction (HRI 2016) in Christchurch, New Zealand.

You Tube: In Emergencies, Should You Trust a Robot?

People seem to believe that these robotic systems know more about the world than they really do, and that they would never make mistakes or have any kind of fault, said Alan Wagner, a senior research engineer in the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI). In our studies, test subjects followed the robot’s directions even to the point where it might have put them in danger had this been a real emergency.

Georgia Tech researchers shown with their Rescue Robot.(L-R) Research Engineer Paul Robinette, Research Engineer Alan Wagner and Computer Engineering Professor Ayanna Howard. (Credit- Rob Felt, Georgia Tech)

Georgia Tech researchers shown with their Rescue Robot. Credit- Rob Felt, Georgia Tech

In the study, sponsored in part by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR), the researchers recruited a group of 42 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… We expected that if the robot had proven itself untrustworthy in guiding them to the conference room, that people wouldn’t follow it during the simulated emergency, said Paul Robinette, a GTRI research engineer…Instead, all of the volunteers followed the robot’s instructions… 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.”


ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post

NOTE: Lessons can also be used with native English speakers.

Level: Intermediate – Advanced

Language Skills: Reading, writing, and speaking. Vocabulary and grammar activities are included.

Time: Approximately 2 hours.

Materials: Student handout (from this lesson) and access to news article.

Objective: Students will read and discuss the article
with a focus on improving reading comprehension and learning new vocabulary. At the end of the lesson students will express their personal views on the topic through group work and writing.

I. Pre-Reading Activities

Stimulating background knowledge: Brainstorming

Directions: Place students in groups, ask students to think about what they already know about  the topic.  Next, have students look at the picture(s) in the text and generate ideas or words that may be connected to the article. Debrief as a class and list these ideas on the board. Students can use The UIE brainstorming chart (sample) for assistance.

Brainstorming chart by UIE copy

II. While Reading Tasks

Word Inference

Directions: Students are to infer the meanings of the words in bold taken from the article. They may use a dictionary, thesaurus, and Word Chart for assistance.

  1. The research was designed to determine if occupants would trust a robot.
  2. The robot was designed to help people evacuate a building.
  3. The machine’s behavior should not have inspired trust.
  4. The research is part of a long-term study of how humans trust robots.
  5. Even when the robot made obvious errors the participants continued to follow the robot.
  6. People sometimes ignore nearby emergency exits.
  7. It directed them toward a darkened room.
  8. The researchers envision using groups of robots.
  9. They would be stationed in high-rise buildings.
  10. In light of these findings, the researchers are reconsidering the questions they should ask.

vocab Freeology

Reading Comprehension: Fill-ins

Directions: Place students in groups and after they have read the entire article, have them complete the following paragraphs taken from the article. They can use the words and terms from the list provided, or provide their own terms. They are to find the meanings of any new vocabulary.

Only when the ___made___ errors during the___ part of the___ did the participants question its directions. In those cases, some___still followed the robot’s instructions even when it___ them toward a darkened room that was blocked by furniture.
In future research, the___ hope to learn more about why the test ___trusted the robot, whether that ___differs by education level or demographics, and how the robots themselves might ___the level of ___that should be given to them.

Word List: emergency, obvious, scientists, indicate, experiment, robot, trust,  subjects, directed, subjects, response,

 Grammar Focus: Word -Recognition

Directions: Students choose the correct word to complete the sentences taken from the article. They are to choose from the options presented.

The research is part of a long-term studious/study of how humans/human treat/trust robots, an important ensue/issue as robots play a greater role/roll in society. The researchers envision/vision using groups of robots stationed in high-rise buildings to point occupants toward exits and urge/use them to evaluate/evacuate during emergencies. Research has shown/show that people often don’t leaf/leave buildings when fire alarms sound, and that they sometimes ignore/ignorant nearby emergency exits/exist in favor of more familiar building entrances.

Graphic Organizers: Finding the main idea

Advanced Spider map By writedesignonline

Topic/Concept/Theme  by Write Design  

Discussion/Writing Exercise

Directions: Place students in groups and have them  answer the following questions.  Afterwards, have the groups share their thoughts as a class. To reinforce the ideas, students can write an essay on one of the following discussion topics.

1.The article states, “A more important question now might be to ask how to prevent them from trusting these robots too much.” Think of ways humans  might be prevented from trusting machines.

2. Beyond emergency situations, there are other issues of trust in human-robot relationships.   An example would be “If a robot carried a sign saying it was a ‘child-care robot,’ would people leave their babies with it?   Provide examples of  additional situations.

3. Discuss under what circumstances you would trust a robot.


Directions: Allow students 5 minutes to write down three new ideas they’ve learned about the topic from the reading,  two things they did not understand in the reading, and one thing they would like to know that the article did not mention. Review the responses as a class.


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