Americans cool toward more automation

October 4, 2017 7:17am

•  Express wariness and concern about machines performing tasks currently done by humans

•  “They worry that even the most advanced technologies can never truly duplicate the creativity and insight of humans”

Americans express more worry than enthusiasm for a world in which machines perform many of the tasks currently done by humans, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.

The nationally representative survey of 4,135 U.S. adults conducted May 1-15 examined public attitudes toward: driverless vehicles that can operate without the aid of a human; a future in which robots and computers can perform many of the jobs currently done by humans; fully autonomous robot caregivers for older adults; and computer programs that can evaluate and select job candidates.

It finds that 72 percent of Americans are very or somewhat worried about a future where robots and computers are capable of performing many human jobs – more than double the share (33 percent) that is enthusiastic about this prospect. It also finds that a substantially larger share of the public expresses worry (67 percent) rather than enthusiasm (22 percent) about algorithms evaluating and choosing job candidates.

Public views toward driverless cars and robot caregivers are somewhat more balanced: 54 percent of Americans express worry about the development of automated vehicles (with 40 percent expressing enthusiasm), while 44 percent are enthusiastic and 47 percent worried about the possibility of robotic caregivers, Pew says.

“This study suggests that the public is extremely wary about allowing machines to replace human responsibilities and human decision-making” says lead author Aaron Smith, an associate director of research at Pew Research Center. “Although they anticipate some benefits from the growing trend toward automation, they worry that even the most advanced technologies can never truly duplicate the creativity and insight of humans. They also strongly support policies that limit the reach of automation technologies and that place humans more fully in control of their processes.”

Most Americans expect these advancements to have a negative impact on the workforce and the economy more broadly. According to the survey, 76 percent 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.

Just 25 percent of the public thinks the economy will create many new, better-paying jobs for humans if this scenario becomes a reality, while 64 percent expect that people will have a hard time finding things to do with their lives if forced to compete with advanced robots and computers.

Meanwhile, 81 percent of Americans anticipate that driverless vehicles will cause many people who currently drive for a living to lose their jobs.

At the same time, there is also tempered optimism in the public’s views on these developments, Pew’s report says. For instance, 75 percent of the public anticipates that the widespread use of driverless vehicles will help the elderly and disabled live more independent lives, while 70 percent anticipate that robot caregivers would help people feel less worried about caring for aging relatives.

Among the other key findings:

• A majority of Americans are reluctant to use emerging automation technologies themselves. Some 56 percent of Americans say they would not want to ride in a driverless car, 59 percent would not want to use a robot caregiver, and 76 percent would not apply for a job that used a computer program to select applicants.

• A majority of Americans expect most cars on the road to be driverless within the next half century. Roughly two-thirds (65 percent) expect driverless vehicles to become ubiquitous at some point in the next 50 years, with 9 percent expecting it to happen in less than 10 years.

• There is broad public support for policies that limit these technologies to specific situations or give greater agency to human beings. In the event that machines are capable of performing many human jobs, fully 85 percent of Americans are in favor of limiting them to performing jobs that are dangerous or unhealthy for humans.

In this circumstance, majorities would also support a government-guaranteed basic income (60 percent in favor), as well as a national service program to pay Americans to do jobs that could be completed faster or less expensively by machines (58 percent).

Similarly, the vast majority of Americans (87 percent) would favor a requirement that all driverless vehicles have a human in the driver’s seat who could take over the car in the event of an emergency.

• Public awareness of developments in automation is mixed. Americans have a high degree of awareness of some of these developments. Fully 94 percent of Americans have heard of the effort to develop driverless vehicles, while 85 percent are aware of the idea that robots and computers might one day take many human jobs. At the same time, a majority of Americans are unfamiliar with efforts to develop robot caregivers or with the idea that algorithms might be able to evaluate and select job candidates.

The survey also finds that automation is already impacting a share of today’s workers, but that relatively few Americans anticipate being replaced by machines themselves:

• Roughly three-quarters of Americans (77 percent) think it is at least somewhat realistic that robots and computers might one day be able to many of the jobs currently done by humans. One-in-five (20 percent) view this outcome as “extremely” realistic.

• The public views certain occupations as being more at risk of automation than others. Majorities of Americans think it very or somewhat likely that jobs such as fast food worker (77 percent) and insurance claims processor (65 percent) will be replaced by robots or computers during their lifetimes, while around half expect the same will be true of jobs such as software engineer (53 percent) or legal clerk (50 percent). On the other hand, comparably few expect that teachers (36 percent) or nurses (20 percent) will be replaced by machines over that time period.

• Even so, relatively few Americans are concerned that their own jobs are at risk of being replaced by machines. Just 30 percent think it very or somewhat likely that their own jobs or professions will be done by robots or computers in their lifetimes.

• 6 percent of Americans report that they have already been impacted by automation in the form of lost jobs and/or wages. Those ages 18 to 24 report being disproportionately impacted by workforce automation compared to other age groups: 13 percent of these young adults have lost a job and/or had their pay or hours reduced due to automation by their employers.

Today’s workforce technologies have benefited some workers more than others. Most notably, workers with college degrees are notably more upbeat about the impact of technology on their own careers relative to those with high school diplomas or less.

Compared to workers who have not attended college, college graduates are substantially more likely to say that technology has made their work more interesting (64 percent vs. 38 percent) and to say it has increased their opportunities for career advancement (53 percent vs. 32 percent).

Methodology notes

American Trends Panel (ATP), created by Pew Research Center, is a nationally representative panel of randomly selected U.S. adults recruited from landline and cellphone random-digit-dial surveys. Panelists participate via monthly self-administered web surveys. Panelists who do not have internet access are provided with a tablet and wireless internet connection. The panel is being managed by Abt Associates.

Data for this report are drawn from the panel wave conducted May 1-May 15 among 4,135 respondents. The margin of sampling error for the full sample of 4,135 respondents is plus or minus 2.6 percentage points.

Members of the American Trends Panel were recruited from two large, national landline and cellphone random-digit-dial surveys conducted in English and Spanish. At the end of each survey, respondents were invited to join the panel. The first group of panelists was recruited from the 2014 Political Polarization and Typology Survey, conducted Jan.23-March 16, 2014. Of the 10,013 adults interviewed, 9,809 were invited to take part in the panel and a total of 5,338 agreed to participate. The second group of panelists was recruited from the 2015 Survey on Government, conducted Aug. 27- Oct. 4, 2015. Of the 6,004 adults interviewed, all were invited to join the panel, and 2,976 agreed to participate.2

The ATP data were weighted in a multistep process that begins with a base weight incorporating the respondents’ original survey selection probability and the fact that in 2014 some panelists were subsampled for invitation to the panel. Next, an adjustment was made for the fact that the propensity to join the panel and remain an active panelist varied across different groups in the sample. The final step in the weighting uses an iterative technique that aligns the sample to population benchmarks on a number of dimensions. Gender, age, education, race, Hispanic origin and region parameters come from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 American Community Survey. The county-level population density parameter (deciles) comes from the 2010 U.S. Decennial Census. The telephone service benchmark is comes from the January-June 2016 National Health Interview Survey and is projected to 2017. The volunteerism benchmark comes from the 2015 Current Population Survey Volunteer Supplement. The party affiliation benchmark is the average of the three most recent Pew Research Center general public telephone surveys. The Internet access benchmark comes from the 2015 Pew Survey on Government. Respondents who did not previously have internet access are treated as not having internet access for weighting purposes. Sampling errors and statistical tests of significance take into account the effect of weighting. Interviews are conducted in both English and Spanish, but the Hispanic sample in the American Trends Panel is predominantly native born and English speaking.

In addition to sampling error, one should bear in mind that question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of opinion polls.

The May 2017 wave had a response rate of 80 percent (4,135 responses among 5,147 individuals in the panel). Taking account of the combined, weighted response rate for the recruitment surveys (10.0 percent) and attrition from panel members who were removed at their request or for inactivity, the cumulative response rate for the wave is 2.6 percent.

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