A major study into European attitudes toward automation has found that less than two-thirds of people (64%) have a positive view of robots, down from 70% in 2012.
The Special Eurobarometer polled some 27,801 people from the 28 Member States of the European Union to gauge public attitudes and acceptance in regard to robots and automation. It builds on a previous study conducted in 2012, and looks at ways in which attitudes may have changed over the last two years.
The outcomes, published this month, would not appear to be very positive: more people (89%) think robots need careful management now than did three years ago. More also believe robots steal jobs (70%). Less people think robots are necessary to do dangerous or hard jobs and fewer think they are a good thing for society (72%).
With the exception of Malta where figures remain at 2012 levels, all countries experienced a decline in the proportion of respondents who have a positive view of robots.
However, men are much more likely than women to have a positive view of robots (70% vs. 57%), and young respondents are more likely to look favourably on them than older people.
Autonomous vehicles and drones
Attitudes to autonomous vehicles were similarly negative. Six out of ten respondents (61%) say that they would feel uncomfortable travelling in an autonomous or driverless car.
Additionally, two-thirds of respondents (66%) are concerned that civil drones are a threat to privacy. However, a majority (57%) believe that civil drones are an efficient way of transporting and delivering goods.
On the positive side, one European in seven has now used a robot either at home, at work or elsewhere: more than in 2012.
Overall, when looking at the total use of robots, 24 Member States recorded an increase in the level of use of robots since 2012, with the largest increases occurring in the Czech Republic (21%, +7 pp.), Luxembourg (17%, +7 pp.) and Italy (24%, +6 pp.). Only Germany (7%, -2 pp.) registered a fall in the level of the use.
And the research also shows that the more exposure you get to robots, the more positively you feel about them. For example, a fifth of respondents (20%) say that they would consider having a robot at home. One in ten (10%) say they could get one within the next five years. However among those that have exposure to robots, the figures improve to nine in ten (90%).
Geographically, analysis shows that the larger proportions of respondents who are both positive about and/or engaged with robotics can be found in Northern European countries.
Certain groups emerge as being particularly likely to be either negative or disengaged from robotics: “house persons” (42%), retirees (37%), unemployed respondents (35%) and manual workers (29%).
The poll also showed respondents two pictures of robots, and asked to what extent they correspond with the idea they have of the technology. Eight out of ten respondents (79%) say that the picture of an instrument-like machine corresponds with their idea of a robot, whereas less than six out of ten (57%) believe the human-like robot is an accurate representation.
This presents a noticeable decline from the 2012 figures and may indicate that people have expectations which don’t correspond with the technology’s true appearance or capabilities.
However younger respondents are more inclined to say that both machines correspond well with their idea of a robot (82% of 15-24 year-olds as opposed to only 75% of people aged 55 or over, in the case of the instrument-like machine and 66% of 15-24 year-olds, but only 50% of people aged 55 or over, in the case of the human-like robot).
Other questions the poll considers include whether people think that a robot can do their job (in general, respondents don’t think so) and whether it should perform certain tasks, such as surgical operations and looking after older people or children. Several countries have recorded a sizeable decline since 2012 in the proportion of respondents who say they would feel comfortable having a robot assist them at work.
The study makes use of extensive comparisons, both between European states, in terms of age, employment, income and internet use.
Although the poll is based on people’s perceptions, rather than actual experiences with robots, it’s not very good news for the industry and sources fear the PR battle for hearts and minds maybe over before it's even begun.
However, overall, the study finds that personal experience with robots is rising and it’s clear that this is strongly related to the attitudes of and perceptions towards the use of robots in daily life. It may be that until robots become more ubiquitous, public perception will continue to be a battle which only growing familiarity can fix.