In 1942 the author and professor Isaac Asimov introduced his Three Laws of Robotics, one of the most well-known attempts to establish workable rules integrating artificial intelligence, or AI, into society. Since then, many science fiction writers, philosophers, scientists, and others have grappled with the pros and cons of AI.
This attention has only increased. Just this September, five of the largest tech companies teamed up to create a coalition, the Partnership on Artificial Intelligence to Benefit People and Society, to assure people that AI was not about creating killer robots. And earlier this month, under President Obama’s leadership, the White House issued a report, “Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence,” discussing AI’s possible applications and how it is likely to impact society, for better or worse.
What we have heard less of, however, is what everyday consumers think about AI’s potential and pitfalls, about whether AI will help or hurt the world. We decided to ask.
In June 2016 my company (Weber Shandwick) and KRC Research surveyed 2,100 consumers online in five global markets (the U.S., Canada, the UK, China, and Brazil) on their feelings about AI. We asked them questions including what AI-powered devices they own, what tasks they’d trust AI to perform without human assistance, what concerns they have about AI, and what sources they would most trust to give them accurate information on AI. We also conducted telephone interviews with 150 CMOs in the U.S., UK, and China who are responsible for marketing and branding in their organizations.
What we found surprised us. Yes, consumers are worried about job loss, security issues, and privacy infringement. But, for the most part, consumers are accepting of AI. Here are some of our results:
- More consumers see AI’s impact on society as positive than negative (45% and 7%, respectively). When it comes to their personal lives, more consumers think that AI will have a positive impact than a negative one (52% and 7%).
- People vary in how they understand AI. Two-thirds of those surveyed say they know something about AI, although only about two in 10 (18%) say that they know a lot. One-third acknowledged knowing nothing about AI. We found that by far the most common first impression of AI is “robots,” as 22% of respondents said. These findings vary slightly by geography; for instance, nearly twice as many Chinese consumers said they know a lot about AI compared to those in other markets.
- Only 8% of global respondents think AI is science fiction and will never materialize. The vast majority of people (92%) told us that they expect AI to arrive eventually. Over half (52%) think AI is still in its earliest stages of development, and 40% think AI is close to fully developed. One-quarter of consumers would like the development of AI to be accelerated, compared to a mere 6% who would like AI stopped altogether. As one might expect, understanding and acceptance of AI’s rate of development is correlated with age. Millennials were more likely (19%) than older people (8% of Gen Xers and 2% of Baby Boomers) to believe that AI is already fully developed and to want development to speed up (32% of Millennials, 28% of Gen Xers, and 20% of Boomers).
- Trust in AI depends on experience and expertise. When it comes to accurate sources of information about AI, consumers reported that the most-credible information will come from hands-on experience (46%) and technology experts (46%). Consumers also reported that when dealing with AI, they would rely on academics and experts in specialized fields (39%) and professional product reviews (38%). They gave less weight to the advice of friends, family, and other personal relationships (28%). Despite the seeming worldwide backlash against elites and their expertise, consumers are still willing — at least with respect to AI — to turn to those who are most informed.
- Consumers encounter AI on a frequent basis. When asked where their overall impression of AI comes from, 80% of global consumers mention some form of media — internet, social media, TV, movies, and the news. Nearly six in 10 (59%) said they had seen or read something about AI or had some personal experience with it in the 30 days prior to taking our survey. Notably, 82% of these consumers reported that their recent interaction had left them with a positive impression.
- But how far would people allow AI into their lives without becoming uncomfortable? It turns out, quite far. Two-thirds or more said they would trust AI with handling medication reminders, travel directions, entertainment, targeted news, and manual labor and mechanics. More than 50% of respondents trust AI to provide elder care, health advice, financial guidance, and social media content creation. More than 40% said they would trust AI to cook, teach, police, drive, and provide legal advice. On the other hand, using AI in child care ranked at the bottom of the list.
- Without a doubt, the probability of job loss due to AI was the largest concern among respondents. When asked whether AI is more likely to create jobs or lead to job loss, more consumers said job loss (82%) than job creation (18%).
Consumers reported possible adverse effects on other aspects of everyday life; the other great concern was increased opportunity for criminality. Half of our respondents noted being very concerned about cyber attacks (53%) and stolen data or invasion of privacy (52%). Fewer saw AI as having the ability to improve social equality (26%).
In conclusion, consumers seem ready to accept AI, or at least are ready for what they think AI is right now. Perceptions are undoubtedly colored by stories in the media about robots, drones, gaming, and speech recognition. But many people appear willing to use AI to save time, complete dangerous tasks, and make their lives easier. Of course, the biggest challenge will likely be helping consumers overcome genuine fears about jobs being replaced and increased cybercrime.
When we think about the future, we clearly need to think about AI. President Obama summed up why in a recent Wired interview: “I tend to be optimistic — historically we’ve absorbed new technologies, new jobs are created, and standards of living go up.”