Seeing robots made with soft, flexible parts in action appears to lower people’s anxiety about working with them or even being replaced by them.

A Washington State University study found that watching videos of a soft robot working with a person at picking and placing tasks lowered the viewers’ safety concerns and feelings of job insecurity. This was true even when the soft robot was shown working in close proximity to the person. This finding shows soft robots hold a potential psychological advantage over rigid robots made of metal or other hard materials.

“Prior research has generally found that the closer you are to a rigid robot, the more negative your reactions are, but we didn’t find those outcomes in this study of soft robots,” said lead author Tahira Probst, a WSU psychology professor.

Currently, human and rigid robotic workers have to maintain a set distance for safety reasons, but as this study indicates, proximity to soft robots could be not only physically safer but also more psychologically accepted.

“This finding needs to be replicated, but if it holds up, that means humans could work together more closely with the soft robots,” Probst said.

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