A FASCINATING TIME CAPSULE OF HUMAN FEELINGS TOWARDS AI
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?
Overview from TED
How comfortable are you with robots taking over your life?
Covering a wide range of potential applications - from the mundane (robot house cleaner) to the mischievous (robot sex partner) to the downright macabre (uploading your brain to live on after death) - technology strategist Lucy Farey-Jones shares data-backed evidence of how our willingness to accept AI may be radically changing.
"If the robots at TED 2222 are watching this for posterity, could you send a cyborg, dig me up and tell me if I was right?"
Lucy Farey-Jones is obsessed with what makes people embrace or reject new things.
Despite being short in duration – more of an overview, than an in depth presentation - I found Lucy Farey-Jones’ TED Talk to be incredibly thought-provoking. Not least the question that purportedly keeps her awake at night: who wins in the end? Humans or robots?
The cynic in me reckons it’ll be the humans who create the robots that ultimately win, or the ones rich enough to pay a team of expert engineers, developers and programmers to do it for them. You know, the Jeff Bezos’s of the world; the ones sitting atop their trillion dollar money mountains made by me and you.
To my mind, though, it’s not really a question of “who wins?”. I think we can all agree that we, as humans, are becoming more and more comfortable with AI over time – as smartphone technology advances, and voice-activated assistants become a fixture in homes around the globe. The real question relates to a tipping point in public opinion: at what point in the future will society be more comfortable than not with AI and robots?
To that end, Farey-Jones shares a “discomfort index”, populated by the results of a survey of 1,200 Americans. I don’t know about you, but I’d have gladly spent a week or more diving into this data. In May last year I wrote a blog entitled “What would you trust a robot to do?” I explored the pros and cons of allowing a robot to walk your dog, and concluded that it wasn’t for me:
"For the most part, I can accept the significant role that technology plays in my day-to-day life. I’m more than happy for robots to hoover my house, mow the lawn, make me a cuppa, wake me up, play my music, turn the lights on… One day I may even feel comfortable with the prospect of a robot landing the plane I’m travelling on, or driving the train, or my car. But walking my dog? No, you’ll have to leave that one to me!"
Judging by the results of Farey-Jones’ study, I’m far from alone. Only 32% of respondents are “somewhat, very or extremely comfortable” with the prospect of a robot dog walker, compared to 47% who are uncomfortable.
But dog walking is the tip of the AI iceberg, as we’re about to find out…
THE AI DISCOMFORT INDEX
At a glance, applications involving health and care are the main no-no’s: doctors, nurses, police, child care. By contrast, the majority of respondents would be comfortable offloading chores and services using AI house cleaners (62%) and package delivery (54%) – neither of which could inherently place human lives in danger. On that evidence, there is a clear issue around risk vs reward. In theory, robot child care may be cheaper, more efficient and more readily available, but is it worth the risk? 71% of participants would say no. And I’d have to agree with them.
But what of personal assistants and matchmakers? Again, there is no inherent risk to life or wellbeing, and yet 29% and 32% respectively state they are uncomfortable with the prospect. Farey-Jones believes AI has a branding problem:
"Of those folks who said that they would absolutely reject the idea of a personal assistant, 45 percent of them had, in fact, one in their pockets, in terms of a device with Alexa, Google or Siri. One in five of those who were against the idea of AI matchmaking had of course, you guessed it, done online dating."
Even more telling, she adds:
"And 80 percent of those of us who refuse the idea of boarding an autonomous plane with a pilot backup had in fact, just like me to get here to Vancouver, flown commercial."
Perhaps it’s because we rarely stop and think about the “how”. You can fly from London to New York for a business meeting without knowing the science behind air travel. Or find that cute match on Tinder without wondering about the algorithms at play. Asked if you’d like to have a robot friend or pet, however, and there’s no choice but to confront the “how”, “what” and “why” questions head on. There’s no blueprint dictating how you should feel, so greater introspection is required.
I personally think a cyber pet would be pretty cool! A companion to interact with, to train and to exercise alongside with none of the problems. No allergies, no hefty vet bills, no restrictions on rental properties, no incessant barking and – best of all - no poop-scooping… I expect you’d get a lot of funny looks at first – like those quirky folk who take their cats out for walks – but that would soon change once it became “normal”.
Consider the wristwatch for a moment. You don’t wonder what that peculiar device is strapped to people’s arms. It’s completely normal. But take the DeLorean for a spin in the 15th century, and that same wrist-based device would cause quite a stir.
During her talk, Farey-Jones also delves into demographics. According to the survey, men are:
"…twice as likely than women to believe that getting into an autonomous car is a good idea, that uploading your brain for posterity is fun, and two and a half times more likely to believe that becoming a cyborg is cool."
Farey-Jones blames Hollywood. It’s hard to disagree.
What’s more, the survey showed that one in four men are OK with the idea of sex with a robot, rising to 44% of millennial men (compared to one in 10 women). Channel 4’s sci-fi show Humans explored this theme further, with Tom Goodman-Hill’s character conflicted over whether to take things to the “next level” with Mia, the family’s newly-acquired “Synth”. He didn’t remain conflicted for long.
Farey-Jones continues with a graph depicting the attitudes of those who already own a voice-assistant device (a smart speaker, home hub or smartphone), versus those that don’t. Those who own one judge future applications much more favourably than those who don’t. This feels logical to me: they have already enjoyed a positive experience of AI-enabled technology – in their homes, cars and pockets – and are open to more.
But Farey-Jones takes a harsher view:
"You can see from this graph that the Trojan horse is already in our living room. And as these devices proliferate and our collective defences soften, we all see how it can end."
With more helpful, time-saving technology? That doesn’t sound like a bad thing to me. But perhaps I’ve been missing the point.
If technology slowly but surely takes over key roles in our society – doctors, nurses, pilots, police officers, lawyers, friends, pets – and we let it, what is left for humans? Now that’s a thought that would keep me up at night!
The good news? It won’t affect us.
The (potentially) bad news? It will affect our descendants.
If we continue at the same rate of change, Farey-Jones anticipates we could be just eight generations away from the “robots winning” - when every single American will think the majority of these things here are normal:
"The year 2222 is an astounding place where everything here is mainstream… We are the proverbial frogs in boiling water. So if the robots at TED 2222 are watching this for posterity, could you send a cyborg, dig me up and tell me if I was right?"
Only 202 years to go…