The British Science Association has today released a YouGov survey of attitudes towards artificial intelligence (AI), automation and robotics. The online survey, which had over 2,000 responses, shows that people in the UK have an ambivalent attitude towards these new technologies, recognising that they could have significant benefits whilst also presenting some risks. Specifically, around a third of respondents saw AI as posing a future threat to humanity, and 60% considered that automation could have an adverse impact on jobs. Respondents were also split as to whether it will be useful to have robots that have emotions or personalities, and around half of those questioned were not sure that robots could be trusted to take charge of safety-critical tasks such as flying aeroplanes or performing surgery. Robotics and automation were seen as having a potentially useful role in household tasks such as cooking and cleaning, and in domains such as search and rescue, military surveillance and agriculture.

EPSRC UK-RAS Network's response to the findings of this survey

Given that robotics and AI are new technologies, of which most of us have limited experience, it is understandable that many people have concerns. Whilst science fiction movies, such as Terminator and Ex Machina, paint a picture of human-like or beyond-human machine intelligence in the near future, the reality is that such systems are still a long way off. Today’s computers and robots fall far short of human minds both in their computational power and in their ability to make sense of the everyday world. In contrast, existing AIs and robots are designed with very specific functions in mind - to make cars and dishwashers, to clean floors, or to play the game of Go - each with the necessary intelligence to meet that one particular challenge, and always with close attention to making them safe.

In the future, we may be able to develop systems that have a broader, more human-like intelligence. As we get closer to that point it will be important to progress with care. Anticipating this future need, new centres in Oxford (Future of Humanity Institute) and Cambridge (Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence and Centre for the Study of Existential Risk) have been established with a focus on understanding and averting the long-term risks that might arise as these machines become more capable, and on identifying and promoting their positive societal impacts. While it is good to start considering the possibilities now, this does not imply that advanced AI is just around the corner. The history of our field is that we have consistently, and in every generation since computers were first invented, underestimated how hard it is to make truly intelligent systems.

Across the European Union there is no evidence thus far of factory automation having a negative impact on jobs. On the contrary, an increased role for robotics in the UK economy, 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. More generally, there is good evidence that these technologies make our society wealthier, increasing human productivity and boosting growth. If there is a risk, it is that these benefits might be for the few rather than the many. This speaks to a further societal challenge - that we should consider the broader economic and social impacts of AI and robotics, and work to ensure, through political change or other means, that they are developed to the future benefit of all.

“These new technologies will continue to make us more productive, which we must do in order to keep up and outpace our international competition in this increasingly globalized world and its markets.” Prof David Lane, Director, Edinburgh Centre for Robotics.

“UK researchers are leading the world in assessing and mitigating potential risks from AI and robotics technologies, while developing the huge opportunities they provide for progress on global and societal challenges.” Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh, Executive Director of the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER).

“Robots will increasingly take care of the dull, dirty, and dangerous jobs that people do not want to do, whilst generating increased wealth in which we can all share. AI technologies, through their ability to reason in a balanced and long-term way, also have the potential to help us resolve the most pressing problems of our time—from climate change, to calming the cycle of economic boom-and-bust, to sustainably managing the limited resources on our planet.”  Prof Tony Prescott, Director of Sheffield Robotics.

The EPSRC UK Network for Robotics and Autonomous Systems (UK-RAS Network) represents academic groups researching robotics in many of our leading higher education institutions.

Tony Prescott, Sheffield Robotics

11th March 2016