New survey on public attitudes towards robots: comfortable or confused?

SO, the British Science Association has released a survey on the British public’s attitudes toward robotics and AI. Their headlines:

BSA w headline

  • 60% of people think that the use of robots or programmes equipped with artificial intelligence (AI) will lead to fewer jobs within ten years
  • 36% of the public believe that the development of AI poses a threat to the long term survival of humanity.

Some other highlights:

  • 46% oppose the idea of robots or AI being programmed with a personality

We would not trust robots to do some jobs…

  • 53% would not trust robots to perform surgery
  • 49% would not trust robots to drive public buses
  • 62% would not trust trust robots to fly commercial aircraft

but would trust them to do others:

  • 49% want robots to perform domestic tasks for the elderly or the disabled
  • 48% want robots to fly unmanned search and rescue missions
  • 45% want robots to fly unmanned military aircraft
  • 70% want robots to monitor crops

There are also results showing some predictable divisions along the lines of gender (only 17% of women are optimistic about the development of robots, whereas 28% of men are) and age (of 18-24 year olds, 55% could see robots as domestic servants in their household, 28% could see having a robot as a co-worker, and 10% could even imagine a robot being a friend).

A reply has come from the UK-RAS Network (the ESPRC-funded organisation representing academic bodies working in robotics and autonomous systems) that explains while there is need to examine these issues and carefully plan our future, there’s really nothing to worry about. They cite a European Commission report that shows there is no evidence for automisation having a negative (or a positive) impact on levels of human employment, and point to genuine benefits of robots in the workplace, suggesting how robots ‘can help protect jobs by preventing manufacturing moving from the UK to other countries, and by creating new skilled jobs related to building and servicing these systems.’

The popular press also seems to have seized upon the issue of robots and AI replacing human labour – though a lot of this in recent weeks has been in response to other studies and speeches. The Daily Mail, however, can always be relied upon to strike fear into the heart of its readers, and they haven’t disappointed. Though their rather restrained headline on the BSA study seems innocent, ‘Do you fear AI taking over? A third of people believe computers will pose a threat to humanity and more fear they’ll steal jobs‘, the article (again) resuscitates StephenDaily Mail again Hawking’s and Elon Musk’s dire warnings about the future threat posed by AI. In case this wasn’t sufficiently terrifying – and it really isn’t – The Mail slaps up another one of THOSE TERMINATOR PICTURES to accompany the article (right), with the helpful caption that ‘There are mounting fears among the public about the threat posed by artificial intelligence.’ Well, honestly, I’m sure no one can imagine why.

(Sigh.) Some needs to sit down with The Daily Mail’s photo editor and have a nice, long, very slow, chat.

But what does this survey tell us? Simply, that there is still a problem with people’s perceptions of robotics and AI that must be addressed, and it seems that we are not even heading in the right direction. A Eurobarometer survey on the public’s attitudes to robotics conducted in late 2014 shows that 64% then had a generally positive view of robots (which, if added to the 36% in the BSA survey that believes robots and AI are a threat to the future of humanity, just about accounts for everyone). In that 2014 study, however, just 36% of respondents thought that a robot could do their job, and only 4% thought that a robot could fully replace them, so clearly this is area of heightened concern. A 2013 Sciencewise survey reported almost exactly the same general results: 67% held a generally positive view (though  this survey reports that 90% would be uncomfortable with the idea of children or elderly parents being cared for by a robot, so compared to the 49% that want robots to help take care of the disabled and elderly in the latest study there might be some progress there… or else people are just so desperate to deal with an increasingly ageing population that they’re perfectly happy to dispense with their elderly relatives by dumping them with psychotic, genocidal toasters.) However, a 2012 Eurobarometer report told us that  as many as 70% of Europeans were generally positive about robots.

These comparisons are very rough and cannot tell us much without more rigorous analyses (and the BSA hasn’t provided a link to the full survey). But it shows that there has been little movement in attitudes towards robotics, and in fact an increase in anxiety that robots will displace more humans in the workforce . Without more specific scrutiny, it’s hard to say what we’ve got here. It could well be the case that what we have is very unremarkable. But though it may be encouraging to see that a majority of Europeans are consistently generally positive in their perception of robots and AI, there is still a sizeable minority that could prove very disruptive to the development of future applications of robotics and AI, whose anxieties cannot – and should not – be ignored.

One way to alleviate a great deal of these concerns, particularly regarding the loss of jobs, is to explicitly undertake to address what is emerging as the vital question in the public imagination: what this increasing automisation means for our societies? Because it is not in any way inevitable that more working robots and AI means more poverty for unemployed humans. We get to choose what the consequences are of this mechanisation; and these decisions will be taken by human beings, not left to the whims of sentient robots, or even the indifference of disembodied market forces. If we decide to divide the advantages of such automisation more equally (for example, with the introduction of a Universal Basic Income), then it could be a very good thing indeed. (It is worth remembering that two thirds (or more) of us don’t like their jobs anyway, so more robots could mean less drudgery and freedom for a disaffected workforce.)

Again, without more scrutiny, it is difficult to judge what these numbers mean. It seems to suggest that the public are very ambivalent about the forthcoming developments in robotics and AI: if 46% oppose the idea of robots or AI being programmed with a personality, then it could mean that around 54% of people could be perfectly fine with emotionally engaged robots. If half of us don’t want robots driving public buses (49%, according to the BSA survey), half might be happy for the them to do so.

We might look at this study and say that we are ambivalent about robots and AI – that means, not ‘indifferent’ (as ambivalent is often, incorrectly, taken to mean now), but that we have mixed feelings. However ,this could be a terrible misreading of the numbers. What if people aren’t deeply ambivalent, but radically schizophrenic? If 50% are reporting that they are worried, the other 50% might not be; they might even be very enthusiastic about the possibilities.

Again, there is no evidence in this study to support this notion, necessarily. There is clearly a need for more research into the specific concerns  – and their sources – in order to properly address these issues, and to understand these anxieties more thoroughly (which will need a very different sort of study). However, the cultural record offers some some unique insights. Because what films, for example, show us is that we are not at all indifferent to robots and AI, or ambivalent. There is no middle ground: when it comes to robots and AI, we are deeply terrified OR wildly optimistic; we seem to be convinced that robots will either spell certain doom for the human race or our last, our greatest, hope for salvation from all of the terrible things that threaten us (including, inevitably, other robots and ourselves).

Let’s look again at the Terminator. (And why not? since so many seem unable to leave it alone we might as well make good use of it.) The first, 1984 Terminator, for many embodies what it is we fear about robots: the relentless, unstoppable, rational monster, the sole purpose of which is to destroy of human life. But already in the next film, Arnold Schwarzenegger is the Good Guy, posing as the only hope to save John Connor and our entire species, and subsequent instalments – including the aptly-named Terminator: Salvation and the latest Terminator: Genisys [sic] – build on this theme. In our cultural imaginations, robots are both to be feared and embraced, or are either genocidal psychopaths or benevolent messiahs.

Such diametrically opposed perceptions – such dread or aspiration – do not facilitate the sort of reasoned, rational debate that will be necessary to properly assess both the challenges and the opportunities that real robots and AI represent, outside the pages and reels of science fiction. And yet we are fed a steady diet of such vicissitudes. In my next post I’ll look at another example, when I finally get around to a full review of the latest Avengers offering, The Age of Ultron.

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