Americans express more worry than enthusiasm about coming developments in automation – from driverless vehicles to a world in which machines perform many jobs currently done by humans
Advances in robotics and artificial intelligence have the potential to automate a wide range of human activities and to dramatically reshape the way that Americans live and work in the coming decades. A Pew Research Center survey of 4,135 U.S. adults conducted May 1-15, 2017, finds that many Americans anticipate significant impacts from various automation technologies in the course of their lifetimes – from the widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles to the replacement of entire job categories with robot workers. Although they expect certain positive outcomes from these developments, their attitudes more frequently reflect worry and concern over the implications of these technologies for society as a whole.
To gauge the opinions of everyday Americans on this complex and far-reaching topic, the survey presented respondents with four different scenarios relating to automation technologies. Collectively, these scenarios speak to many of the hopes and concerns embedded in the broader debate over automation and its impact on society. The scenarios included: the development of autonomous vehicles that can operate without the aid of a human driver; a future in which robots and computers can perform many of the jobs currently done by human workers; the possibility of fully autonomous robot caregivers for older adults; and the possibility that a computer program could evaluate and select job candidates with no human involvement. The following are among the major findings.
Americans express widespread concern – but also tempered optimism
about the impact of emerging automation technologies
Americans generally express more worry than enthusiasm when asked about these automation technologies. Most prominently, Americans are roughly twice as likely to express worry (72%) than enthusiasm (33%) about a future in which robots and computers are capable of doing many jobs that are currently done by humans. They are also around three times as likely to express worry (67%) than enthusiasm (22%) about algorithms that can make hiring decisions without any human involvement. By comparison, public views towards driverless vehicles and robot caregivers exhibit more balance between worry and enthusiasm.
The public also expresses a number of concerns when asked about the likely outcomes they anticipate from these technological developments. For instance, 76% of Americans expect that economic inequality will become much worse if robots and computers are able to perform many of the jobs that are currently done by humans. A similar share (75%) anticipates that the economy will not create many new, better-paying jobs for humans if this scenario becomes a reality. And 64% expect that people will have a hard time finding things to do with their lives if forced to compete with advanced robots and computers for jobs.
In the case of driverless vehicles, 75% of the public anticipates that this development will help the elderly and disabled live more independent lives. But a slightly larger share (81%) expects that many people who drive for a living will suffer job losses as a result. And although a plurality (39%) expects that the number of people killed or injured in traffic accidents will decrease if driverless vehicles become widespread, another 30% thinks that autonomous vehicles will make the roads less safe for humans. Similarly, seven-in-ten Americans (70%) anticipate that robot caregivers would help alleviate the burden of caring for aging relatives – but nearly two-thirds (64%) expect that these technologies would increase feelings of isolation for the older adults in their care.