To mark the start of British Science Week (11- 20 March), the British Science Association (BSA) conducted a survey to see how the public thought robotics and artificial intelligence will affect society and culture.

The online survey, which had over 2,000 reponses, was conducted by YouGov on behalf of the British Science Association. Research results will be discussed during British Science Week at the BSA's flagship Future Debates London event on 16 March. 

The survey found that:

  • 60 per cent think that the use of robots or programmes equipped with artificial intelligence (AI) will lead to fewer jobs within ten years
  • 36 per cent of the public believe that the development of AI poses a threat to the long term survival of humanity. 

Many of the respondents felt negatively about the short term effects of the rise of artificial intelligence, with 60 per cent thinking that their rise will lead to fewer jobs by 2026, with 27 per cent predicting that it will decrease the number of jobs ‘a lot’.

Almost half of those questioned (46 per cent) opposed the idea of robots or programming being equipped with emotions or a personality, meaning that pop culture favourite robots in films such as Wall-E or Ex Machina might prove unpopular in real life.

It seems that the public largely doesn’t trust intelligent machines to take on roles where lives could be in danger. The poll found that approximately half of those surveyed would not trust robots in roles including surgical procedures (53 per cent), driving public buses (49 per cent) or flying commercial aircraft (62 per cent).

The preferred roles for intelligent machines would be to carry out household tasks (e.g. cooking and cleaning) for older people or disabled people (49 per cent), to fly unmanned search and rescue (48 per cent) or unmanned military (45 per cent) aircraft or as monitors for crops (70 per cent).

The survey found that opinions on artificial intelligence differed by age or sex. Perhaps surprisingly, only 17 per cent of women felt optimistic about their development, compared to 28 per cent of men. 13 per cent of men believe they could be friends with a robot (as opposed to 6 per cent of women) and one in five men (22 per cent) think that intelligent robots could be trusted to carry out sex work (vs. just 13 per cent of women).

Those aged 18 - 24 years old were the most open minded about a future that includes artificial intelligence, with one in four (28 per cent) envisaging that robots could be future co-workers and ten per cent thinking that they could regard them as family members. More than half of this age bracket (55 per cent) also thought that intelligent machines could take up the role of servants in a household.

Rt Hon the Lord David Willetts, Chair of the British Science Association, said: “It isn’t surprising that many people are apprehensive about the future when it comes to artificial intelligence. Innovation is often scary. But it is important to remember that the economy and the world is constantly changing and adapting: the rise of a new technology such as this is simply the newest invention that will take adjusting to and we are infinitely capable of that.

“What this research shows is that the public’s fears need to be listened to as we go on to innovate and trail-blaze in this area. The British Science Association strongly believes that the public should be involved in the debates around future technology to ensure they have a voice and to give the public some ownership of the direction of science and technology. 

“People will always want human experiences: robots will not kill the radio star, and we will always want to interact with other people. In fact, the greater problem is that artificial intelligence cannot quickly enough fill jobs that are going spare.

“It is encouraging, though, to hear so many varied opinions on this developing technology and nervous voices only strengthen the need for passionate and well thought discussion.”

The research results will be discussed during British Science Week at 'A robot stole my job: will automated technologies destroy British culture?' in London on 16 March at Cavendish Conference Centre.

Since November 2015 there have been over a dozen events across the country on the subject of Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) as part of the Future Debates series

Find out more about British Science Week