Public overwhelmingly rejecting robots, finds UK Robotics Week report

Public overwhelmingly rejecting robots, finds UK Robotics Week report

With UK Robotics Week upon us, UK-RAS has released a survey trumpeting public support for the technology. However, the results reveal the exact reverse, says Chris Middleton. 

A fifth of UK adults believe we are co-existing in harmony with robots, according to a new survey, while nearly one-quarter (24 percent) believe that there is much more scope for robots to be included in everyday society.

Over one-third of people (35 percent) would feel comfortable with having robots around the house, it says.

The research, commissioned and given a positive spin by UK-RAS – the umbrella organisation for UK robotics and autonomous systems research, part of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) – is being released ahead of UK Robotics Week, which takes place from 21-29 June.

However, the findings are far from the positive results that the organisation claims.

Bots at work

But first, some more granular detail. According to the organisation, the survey reveals some intriguing perceptions about the limits of what robots should – and should not – be allowed to do. For example, almost one-quarter of respondents (22 percent) believe that there should be ethical laws governing the work that robots can do, while 13 percent say that there should be an upper limit on the number of hours that robots can work a day.

Over one-fifth of people (21 percent) would feel comfortable with a robot delivering food or packages to their homes, found the survey, while “almost one in ten people” would accept a robot performing surgery on them (eight percent).

According to UK-RAS, the top three reasons that respondents would feel comfortable with robot assistance are:

  • A robot doesn’t get tired, and so is able to work longer than humans (37 percent)
  • Robots have the ability to carry out tasks exactly as required (34 percent)
  • They have no emotional involvement that might interfere with their work (32 percent).

In a statement released this morning, UK-RAS said, “Significant growth is forecast in the global robotics industry and it’s not gone unnoticed among the British public, with 20 percent saying that the UK industry has progressed ‘massively’ over the last few years and will continue to advance.

“A further 24 percent of 55-year-olds said they consider robots and robotics to be of huge benefit to society, demonstrating that positive public perceptions of robotics cross age boundaries.”

Commenting on the findings, Professor Guang-Zhong Yang, chair of the EPSRC UK-RAS Network, said: “These survey results demonstrate that the general public is clearly engaged in thinking quite deeply about advances in robotics technology, and what it means for society and the future of how we live and work. 

“This is exactly the type of engagement and dialogue that the UK Robotics Week initiative was set up to progress, and we’re looking forward to the coming week of national activities and its many opportunities to continue that discussion.”

Internet of Business says

Engaged, perhaps, but supportive? Hardly.

UK-RAS publishes a great deal of excellent research on robotics, AI, and automation across fields such as engineering, healthcare, critical infrastructure maintenance, and more. But while it has clearly taken pains to present its latest findings in a positive light, the results actually reveal the huge mountain that robotics and AI need to climb in order to gain public support and acceptance.

Spun around the other way, the survey reveals that 80 percent of people don’t believe we are living in harmony with robots, while 76 percent believe there is no scope for their greater involvement in society, with the same number not accepting that they are “a great benefit”. Those figures can hardly be seen as a collective thumbs-up from the public.

Meanwhile, the research also suggests that nearly 80 percent of people don’t want their food or goods delivered by robots, 65 percent would not be comfortable having robots around the house, and an overwhelming majority – 92 percent – would not accept robotic surgery.

According to UK-RAS statistics, no question about robots’ impact on society, the home, and the workplace elicited anything like a positive/majority response. So what’s going on?

One of the reasons must surely be that national newspapers, TV, and radio programmes in the UK have consistently pursued the idea that robots are dangerous, and snatching jobs away from human beings. ‘The Terminator’ is the standard news angle, followed by mass unemployment, terrorist drones, and sinister door-opening machines. 

Rarely does the popular media engage with the message that the UK government itself is putting out: that robotics, AI, and autonomous systems are critical technologies for future economic prosperity, and will create new ventures, new jobs, and improved productivity.

In the long run, several in-depth reports have suggested that robots’ human employment impact will be neutral, but most headlines pull out the short- to medium-term findings that jobs will be affected. Last year’s excellent Age of Automation report by the RSA was just one example of this problem.

These are the challenges that UK Robotics Week itself must help to overcome, and yet its events are sometimes undersubscribed, and certainly under reported.

Now in its third year, UK Robotics Week will see robotics-focused activities taking place up and down the country, including lectures, conferences, hackathons, and open days.  

In what has become the centrepiece of the annual festival, this year’s International Robotics Showcase will take place on 21 June in Liverpool, and feature talks by robotics and AI experts, along with debates on the ethical, legal, and economic impacts of these important technologies.

Internet of Business will be publishing in-depth reports from the event over the next few days.