A virtual human is as good as a real-life person when it comes to helping people practice new leadership skills, according to a new study. Robots, androids, and artificial intelligence are being used more frequently to complete tasks humans once performed. Machines conducting essential activities, such as a robot that delivers medicines on different floors of a hospital, are used to effectively unburden medical staff.
But what about virtual humans teaching us personal interactions such as workplace leadership skills—among the most valuable tools employees can possess to climb the career ladder? Research suggests many organizations are unsatisfied with the results of current leadership skills pieces of training, which is what brought researchers at the Human Interface Technology Lab New Zealand at the University of Canterbury to evaluate the effectiveness of computer-generated characters in a training scenario, compared to flesh-and-blood humans.
New Study: Virtual Humans Versus Flesh-And-Blood People
The study assessed 30 participants who role-played leaders interacting before and after receiving training sessions under one of three conditions: (1) real humans in the real world (2) virtual humans in virtual reality and (3) virtual humans in mixed reality (a combination of the digital world overlaid in a real-life office space). Results showed an increase in comfort level and task engagement performance from pre-to-post evaluations in all three conditions but no difference between the influence of real people versus virtual humans. The virtual human-mixed reality condition had a more significant influence on leadership performance than the other two groups, which led the scientists to conclude that this combination is the most effective method to train business leaders.
According to the findings, virtual humans can provide self-reflective learning and engagement, realistic scenarios of what leaders might encounter on the job, constructive performance feedback, a consistent training experience, and a means for evoking feelings of social presence. The authors of the study advocate the future use of immersive simulators using virtual humans: “Our research has indicated that with adequate context and instructional support, virtual humans can become invaluable tools, where their human-like appearance, rich configurability, and ease of replication allow them to play a critical role in social skills training.”
Implications For The Future
Robotics and advanced automation continue to spread throughout the American workplace where workers express conflicting and sometimes contradictory attitudes about the impact these new technologies will have on their lives. The use of artificial intelligence is gaining traction in the business world, even finding a foothold in the mental health arena to alleviate cognitive overload, compassion fatigue, and employee burnout. Some of the world’s top companies such as MetLife and Humana are employing innovative new technology to offset burnout by enhancing employee engagement, improving customer experience, and providing a more emotionally intelligent and empathetic workplace.
Virtual humans have become valuable tools in a range of fields from training, education to entertainment and be effective in treating patients with depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. A newly developed virtual reality test has paved the way for identifying potential workers at risk of developing a myriad of stressors from cardiovascular to mental health problems in high-stress jobs and help in early intervention for those employees at risk. During the Covid-19 pandemic, we even resorted to virtual grieving because we couldn’t be with our dying loved ones. Now, virtual humans show great potential in teaching leadership, communication, and negotiation. Does this mean robots will eventually replace humans to train business leaders?
Studies show that American workers express negative attitudes about technology overreach in the workplace. A clear majority of 55 % disagree with the assertion that robots are better workers than humans. And an even stronger majority of 57% agree that “robots and advanced automation are bad for American workers.” And drawbacks to the use of virtual humans have been documented, too. According to new scientific research by psychologists at Emory University, the feeling of affinity can plunge us into one of repulsion as a robot’s human likeness increases. The more virtual humans start to resemble real people, the creepier we feel. Human replicas highly resembling people tend to elicit eerie sensations—a zone scientists call “the uncanny valley.” Androids or robots with human-like features are often more appealing to people than those that resemble machines—but only up to a point. Many people experience an uneasy feeling in response to nearly lifelike robots, and yet somehow not quite “right.” According to this line of thinking, these distractions might interfere with concentration for many participants attempting to practice leadership skills.
These negative attitudes stand in stark contrast to the positive sense that technology is improving morale and making workers’ jobs easier. This discrepancy suggests that American workers are still coming to grips with the impact of technology on the workplace and are not yet able to arrive at a clear-cut consensus on the issue. According to Jefferson Flanders, CEO of MindEdge Learning, “Navigating the impact of robotics, automation, and artificial intelligence is a pillar of modern business operations that will take time and experience for business leaders and employees to understand. American workers are continuing to uncover exactly how they feel about robotics and automation in the workplace. But regardless of how they may feel, technology is inexorably transforming the U.S. workforce–and employers and workers need to prepare for it.”