Robots and artificial intelligence has caught the public’s imagination. A survey of public attitudes to these technologies in eleven countries, including South Africa, shows that people feel uncomfortable with robots that look and behave like humans.
A study from the SIENNA project shows that people expect both society and their lives to change as a result of increased use of artificial intelligence and robotics. And they expect inequalities in society to increase with it.
“We are getting used to interacting with intelligent machines, inviting robot vacuum cleaners into our living rooms, and asking Siri, Alexa or Google to help us navigate when we are driving,” the study said.
Robotic pets, like Sony Aibo, have been used in the care of dementia patients. The developments are already visible. Society is becoming more dependent on technology, it said.
The EU-funded SIENNA project asked 11,000 adults from Germany, Greece, Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Sweden, Brazil, South Africa, South Korea, and the US about their attitudes to these new technologies.
In all countries surveyed, people expect rapid developments in intelligent machine’s capabilities to understand and communicate as well as humans, and believe that this will change society.
The survey found that 80% of people polled thought that the AI and robotics revolution would significantly change their country over the next 20 years.
Under half (46%) were positive about the impact that these machines might have on their country, while a third (30%) were negative.
The Dutch and South Koreans were the most positive (61% and 55% respectively), whereas the French were the least positive (31%).
More than half of the people polled (55%) thought that these technologies would lead them to have less control over their lives, with only 13% expecting to have more control.
When asked about robots, over half (52%) did not want robots that are used in the workplace or public places to look or behave like humans. Under a third (29%) said they would be ok with those robots to look and behave like humans.
South Koreans were the most accepting (52%) while the French were again least accepting (17%). Even more striking, 72% of people across all 11 surveyed countries said they did not accept the idea of having a robot as a romantic partner.
Six in 10 participants said they were strongly against the idea of allowing robots as romantic partners, and in no country did more than a third of participants find this acceptable.
The Netherlands was the most accepting, with 30% agreeing that this was acceptable. Other countries with a higher than average level of support included Sweden and South Korea (both 17%), the US (15%), South Africa (14%) and Germany (13%).
There were several countries where the level of agreement towards this being acceptable was below 10%: Brazil (8%) Spain (6%), France (6%) Poland (5%), Greece (5%).
The countries which expressed the strongest negativity towards this concept, as measured by the proportion who disagreed strongly that it would be acceptable to have a robot as a romantic partner, were Greece (78%), Brazil (77%), and South Africa (75%).
“Most people are accepting of robots and artificial intelligence, but they do not like the idea of robots with human-like features. We know the benefits of interacting with machines can be enormous.
“However, as we increase our dependence on technology, we also stand to lose some of our autonomy. Unless everyone has access to technology on the same terms, we risk building an unequal society,” said Philip Brey, professor of philosophy of technology at the University of Twente, and coordinator of the SIENNA project.
According to Philip Brey, the survey results clearly show that people believe that an increase in inequalities is one of the risks stemming from these transformations to society, something that could lead to a reduction of our individual autonomy.
“The data from these surveys give a snapshot of what people know about technology, and how they view both its benefits and risks,” said Brey.