Europe’s Warm Feelings For Robots

September 21, 2012 9:28 am

After two hundred years of uneasy coexistence, the relationship between Man and Machine in Europe now appears to be going very well, according to a new poll of the region’s humans by Eurobarometer, Europe’s official polling agency.
The Eurobarometer poll shows that a surprising 70% of Europeans have a “fairly positive” or “very positive” view of robots. This is great news for human-robot relations. It means Europeans have come a long way since the Luddites waged war against the weaving robots (i.e. automated looms) that were introduced in England at the dawn of the industrial revolution.
Progress has come despite the popularity of The Terminator movies, which portrayed a future – which began on August 29, 1997 – when robots become (became?) intelligent and turn(ed) on humanity, leading to nuclear apocalypse and the creation of a robot called Arnold Schwarzenegger who is sent back in time and ends up running for governor of California, and – am I remembering this correctly or are my circuits crossed?
Anyway, why did Eurobarometer conduct this survey? The European Commission is spending hundreds of millions of euros supporting research in the robotics industry; the commission yesterday said it would launcha “Public Private Partnership” to help European companies snatch a bigger share of the global robotics market. When the commission wants to do something like this, it often likes to have a survey in hand to help understand the public’s views of the subject.
The survey, however, raises a few questions. First, only 6% of Europeans claim to have ever used a robot (Slovakians, at 20%, are the most likely – your guess why is as good as mine).  So it might be more correct to say that Europeans like the idea of robots rather than actual robots they’ve ever met.
And as Europeans increasingly come face-to-metal with robots, their opinions might change. Robots are already widely used in manufacturing, but technology is progressing fast in other areas. What happens when taxis are driven by robots rather than humans? Former taxi-drivers will complain bitterly to their new, super-cheap robotic psychiatrists before stopping off to get their ulcers repaired by Dr. Sanjay Gupta 3000 (engineered to look and act just like the real Dr. Sanjay Gupta, with his same (trademarked) reassuring manner!).
As more and more professions are taken over by robots, the public could turn against them. Yes, some jobs appear to require a human touch that can’t be replaced by robots. Sure enough, the survey shows that people are opposed to robots performing crucial, highly personal tasks like minding their children and elderly parents (66% said “totally uncomfortable” with that) or walking their dog (47% “totally uncomfortable”). Inexplicably (okay, I’m not a dog-owner), people are more comfortable submitting to a medical operation by a robot than having their dog walked by a robot.
Many economists say the march of the robots shouldn’t be a problem. While new technologies have always eliminated old jobs, new kinds of jobs have appeared to take their place. Labor productivity and living standards rise in the process. It’s been the story of the industrial revolution ever since the first weaving robot put its first weaver out of work. The economist Dean Baker and others have argued that as long as economic policy is managed properly, robots shouldn’t lead to a permanent decline in employment.
But what if robots become so advanced that they gain the human touch, just like the Gupta 3000? Maybe 500 years hence, Eurobarometer will be asking robots what they think of humans; the answers surely won’t be good: lazy, spiteful, diffident, greedy and smelly. Let’s hope the super-skilled cadre of programmers and engineers who will build and maintain the super-robots that will build and maintain the robots of the future will include some kind of deactivation switch in their code, to keep the robots from talking trash about us behind our backs – or worse.
Or maybe we won’t even be able to distinguish the robots from the humans? How did Harrison Ford deal with this problem?

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