Lena sits in her office chair, blinks her eyes and always smiles. She talks about projects with her team partners and proposes solutions to problems.

But Lena is not like her interlocutors. She is an android artificial intelligence (AI) robot comparable to Commander Data from the sci-fi series Star Trek, although not quite as smart, articulate, and nimble as its TV counterpart. The blonde robot woman with the red lips is not supposed to work on a spaceship, but simply in the office.

Is Lena suitable as a team player?

With Lena, robots could soon be used in completely new areas. “This is very, very new for service or office work,” says Bettina-Johanna Krings from the Institute for Technology Assessment and Systems Analysis at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT). So far, robots with AI have been working in service, for example, taking on simple tasks at reception. “In industry, AI already decides independently, for example when machines are to be shut down,” says Krings, whose institute is not involved in the robo woman.

Lena was recently tested for her suitability as a team member. For eight weeks, several groups worked together with the robot in an office environment. The project was carried out in the research laboratory “Leap in Time Lab” in Darmstadt, which is behind Lena. The task: The teams should apply for EU funding with an innovative product and look for a solution with Lena.

Lena also asked questions

The members of the teams perceived the work with the robo-colleague positively. “It was a bit difficult at the beginning,” says Jil-Amy Leber, for example. But then Lena made her own suggestions, gave human answers and also gave presentations. Julia Gimbel also found words of praise: “I found her to be very communicative.” Lena also asked questions and they were not simply perceived as a database. Unlike a simple computer box, the android robot turns its face towards the person it is talking to.

“She increased her vocabulary, learned the language and understood better and better what people wanted,” says Ruth Stock-Homburg, founder of the “Leap in Time Lab” and business administration professor at the Technical University of Darmstadt. The project was organized as a competition. Seven teams worked with the same tasks, the same conditions and the same time. The results were evaluated by an independent jury. Four teams would have worked with the android robot, two with an AI box and one without artificial intelligence.

“We found that the teams that worked with AI were ahead,” says Stock-Homburg, who founded the lab in 2016. “In two teams, the crucial idea came from the AI.” While the box was only used as a tool, Lena was perceived as a team member.

“It has been shown that it can not only take on data-supported tasks,” says Dietmar Eidens, global head of human resources at the pharmaceutical and technology group Merck. The private company “Leap in Time Lab”, which deals with the future of work and robotics, initiated the project and developed it in cooperation with Merck.

The shortage of skilled workers forces new paths

“More surprising was the commenting on the team members’ ideas or the generation of one’s own ideas,” says Eidens. This was a surprising result in terms of clarity and dominance. Perspectively, Merck also wants to use the technology in the office sector in the medium or long term. “It’s about the question of how we can counteract the shortage of skilled workers in the medium and long term with new, different measures than the usual ones.”

But first there are still challenges to be overcome. “There’s the whole issue of data security. It has to be absolutely guaranteed, especially when this technology is integrated into the existing IT of a company, and that has to be the goal,” says Eidens. This is not a question of the availability of technology. “We’re well past the question, is this feasible?” It is now also a question of how quickly production can be increased. According to KIT researcher Krings, however, one should also consider what one can expect from employees in the form of robots. “You have to think carefully about how you use them, what role they play.”

According to Stock-Homburg, the development of Lena so far has cost between two and three million euros. “In the beginning, the robot was just a doll that moved, we had to integrate all systems into the robot.” Lena currently only speaks English, but should learn other languages.

The Android not only gave the teams technical support during the project. If you ask the right questions, you can also have small talk with the android and find out that Lena doesn’t have a favorite song, hasn’t had a date yet and doesn’t think she’s a workaholic.