It would be impossible to spot the haunted desk from among the dozens of seemingly identical workstations in the Pervasive Wellbeing Technology Lab at Stanford School of Medicine. Yet this particular desk is a quiet ongoing experiment in wellness technology — and in human-robot relations.
The electric adjustable-height desk moves up and down, just like every other desk in the office does at its user’s direction. The difference with this desk is that it’s always moving up and down, whether you want it to or not.
The desk records your sitting and standing height preferences the first time you use it, then proceeds to smoothly alternate between those two heights at an interval preset by the user, forever, whenever the sensor underneath the desk detects a person sitting at it. There’s no pause button to hit if the desk moves at an inconvenient time, no snooze button to delay the shift. To choose this particular desk for your workstation is to agree to follow its unrelenting orders to regularly get up off your seat.
The desk doesn’t have an official name, but principal investigator Pablo Paredes and his colleagues refer to it amongst themselves as the “haunted desk,” inspired by a study participant who saw the desk rising unbidden before him and exclaimed that it was possessed.
Paredes is a computer scientist and professor of radiology and behavioral sciences departments at Stanford’s School of Medicine. He’s obsessed with how technology can transform mental health — specifically, how the most mundane objects and behaviors in our environment can be hacked to improve well-being with as little effort and awareness on the user’s part as possible.
Take the office desk. Long stretches of sitting, like those many office workers endure at their desks, are linked to health problems like obesity, diabetes, and muscular tension. Manually controlled sit-stand desks offer a happy compromise between the health benefits of standing desks and the comforts of sitting down and are a common offering in many workspaces for people.
Yet the novelty tends to wear off quickly, research shows. Surveys of sit-stand desks users have found that most workers eventually lose interest in the standing feature and spend most of their work time seated.
Paredes sees an opportunity in users who give up on standing out of apathy. If you like the idea of a standing desk, but don’t care enough to bother thinking about whether you should sit or stand at any given moment, then maybe you’d prefer a desk that makes the decision for you. While the research is still very much in the exploratory phase, the eventual goal is a marketable device that makes the average workstation a little healthier.
The technological “ghost” that haunts the desk is relatively simple. Together, the sensor and mechanical nodule cost scarcely more than $30 and can be fitted onto a standard-issue retail workstation.
More interesting than the “haunted desk” technology are the questions it invites about the kind of relationships we want to have with robots in our everyday surroundings, and how much we’re willing to let them tell us what to do.
“Yeah, it’s annoying that it goes up and down. But it’s also good for your health.”
“It’s a great space to start and see how humans interact with robots in general, and how [humans] are made to do things they don’t want to do, but do non-volitionally,” said Akshara Motani, a research assistant in the lab.
As Motani pointed out, our everyday work environments are already filled with nudges encouraging healthy behaviors. She nodded to a path outside the lab’s glass walls that leads visitors on a winding route to the front entrance. It would be faster to cut through the decorative shrubbery to reach the door, but many people follow the designer’s lead and elect to take the extra steps to their destination. Our surroundings contain a myriad of human design choices that require us to behave in one way or another. The more we share our environment with robots, the more we can expect their actions to influence our decisions as well.
“Robots will make us do things that we may not always consciously be aware we’re doing,” Motani said. “So how do we give up that control, and how do we feel about it in the long run? Do we adapt, as humans are adaptable, and give in? Or do we fight back?”
Motani often elects to work at the haunted desk. It sometimes irritates her when it starts to move at times she’d rather not, particularly just after lunch. She’s caught herself chastising it in anthropomorphized language: “Ugh, not now!” But on days when she works at a regular desk, she finds herself antsy after sitting too long.
The team has a small study currently in submission with 16 subjects who alternated between haunted workstations and regular ones and were interviewed during their work sessions. There was no difference in stress and productivity between the two groups. In fact, those who were deep in a work groove when their desk started to move tended to move with it, keeping their eyes on the screen and their fingers typing at the keyboard as they stood along with the desk.
But when questioned afterward, people at the haunted desks said they didn’t like the loss of control it demanded. Maybe robots will tell us what to do someday, but for now, the idea of a machine taking over a simple personal decision like whether to sit or stand remains unappealing.
Being forced to work at an automated desk is one thing. But if we actively choose to work at a desk that orders us off our chairs, will we feel like the control has shifted back in our direction? Will we submit to things we don’t like doing, as long as we’re satisfied that they’re in pursuit of a goal we’ve chosen for ourselves?
“That’s the key: how to design it such that the non-volitional aspect doesn’t become something that people will be really reactive about. There has to be some kind of positive reward, or at least a positive narrative behind it,” Paredes said. “What is the narrative behind these desks? What do [you] understand this desk is doing to you? Yeah, it’s annoying that it goes up and down. But it’s also good for your health. Same as the gym. You go to the gym and it’s pretty annoying to lift the weight. Nobody does it, like, pleasurably. But that’s what you need to do.”