Wheelchair-bound people who use robotic arms as assistants don't like it when those arms work perfectly. Researchers found that when a robotic system offers a precise automatic mode, people using it preferred manual mode, even when that caused more mistakes.

In the first Iron Man movie, Tony Stark kept working with 'Butterfingers', a robotic arm that was designed to help him but instead just got in the way. He had to give it constant directions, and readjusting the thing, and reminding that it needed to clean, needed to move, or needed to stop unecessarily spraying him with a fire extinguisher. Supposedly he kept it around despite its constant need to be told what to do.

Perhaps he kept it around because of it.

Some researchers at the University of Central Florida gave wheelchair-bound people a robotic 'arm' which stood around and waited to be told what to do. The researchers were excited because they had developed a technology which allowed the robot to recognize objects. A person could tell the arm to get them the jar of pickles, sensors on the arm could 'see' what was in front of them, relay that to a processor, which would recognize what object was needed and give the arm directions to retrieve the jar.


If that wasn't working, the participants themselves could use a keyboard and joystick, or careful verbal commands, to get the arm to grab the pickles. Researchers figured that either the automatic mode, if it worked, would be a time-saver, and be much used.

They were surprised to see that people most often used the manual mode. Some testing showed that people preferred it even when they weren't as good at retrieving what they wanted as the automatic mode. John Bricout, one of the collaborators in the project guessed that people thought it was too easy.

"If we're too challenged, we get angry and frustrated. But if we aren't challenged enough, we get bored. We all experience that. People with disabilities are no different."

A little challenge makes life more interesting, and people want to be interested in their lives. Much science fiction builds worlds in which robots, automation, and tehnology is meant to make life easier. That might be the wrong way to go. Perhaps there's a future out there in which machines are designed to make life a fun, engaging, and sometimes frustating challenge.

Via Science Daily.