One of the best Christmas presents I’ve ever received is Alexa, my virtual Amazon assistant. I got her two years ago and have grown very fond of her ever since.
I have to admit that some of my friends don’t like Alexa quite as much as I do. The moment they walk into my apartment they switch her off. “This creepy thing listens to everything you do!” they say to me, looking shocked. ”Do you even know what it is doing with your personal data?”
Although I do understand their anxiety, I find solutions like Alexa or Home Hub far more practical than scary. I would even like to own a robot one day that, next to having Alexa’s skills, will walk around my apartment, helping with chores like cleaning up or doing the dishes. And ideally, I would control it with using just my thoughts. No need to talk at all – amazing!
I’m well aware of the fact that not many of my friends share my dream. On the contrary: they seem downright distrustful of new technology. Let’s have a look at what may be bothering them.
Technology has made some huge steps over the past decade. Boston Dynamics developed a robot that can run, jump, do backflips and that even gets past obstacles effortlessly. Sophia, the most advanced robot today (and an official citizen of Saudi Arabia), is perfectly able to have a human conversation. And AlphaZero, the game-playing AI created by Google sibling DeepMind, has beaten the world’s best chess-playing computer program – having taught itself how to play in under four hours.
But where our trust in everyday technology like aviation or medicine is unshakable, people seem to have much less confidence in the oncoming wave of innovation. The Edelman Trust Barometer shows that trust in new technology is at an all-time low, whether in Blockchain (just under 50 percent), self-driving vehicles (50 percent) or in artificial intelligence (56 percent). Why are people so afraid of new technology? Here are three issues that are raised repeatedly.
Even though technology has improved its skills radically, consumers are reluctant to use tech to its full potential. Most people simply refuse to believe that technology in general and artificial intelligence (AI) in particular, can complete complicated tasks as good as or even better than humans.
A good example is Microsoft‘s Chatbot, which is unable (yet) to come up with customized solutions to customers’ problem. People also are much less aware of AI solutions that do deliver, simply because these solutions are often used in background processes. The media are strengthening this bias: stories about AI failures are covered more frequently than AI’s success stories.
For most people, AI’s goals and decision-making processes are also far too difficult to understand. Not knowing how technology works can make us doubt its purpose or intention. This may give people the feeling they are losing control.
Next to no not understanding AI, people find it difficult to connect to AI. They are missing a single but important human factor: empathy. Unless people believe that someone cares about you, they will not be able to trust him. Which means that until they can prove to us that they can feel, robots will remain outside our circle.
Another reason why people don’t trust new technology: they fear it will take their jobs. According to Alex Gray’s These Are the Jobs Most Likely to Be Taken by Robots, more than 800 million workers, about a fifth of the global labour force, stand to lose their jobs to machines and robots. Lower-skilled, repetitive and dangerous jobs with quantitative tasks are most likely to be taken over by machines. The argument that technological innovation benefits all mankind, is poor consolation to people that are about to loose their jobs.
What we need to keep in mind is that technology won’t replace all jobs. Automation is unlikely to have much effect on jobs that involve creativity, expertise, managing people and on jobs that require social interaction. Moreover, while technology is disruptive, history has shown that new technology creates new jobs. A recent McKinsey report predicts that between eight to nine per cent of all jobs in 2030 will be jobs that do not exist yet. In addition, the report predicts that sectors such as healthcare and technology will experience massive growth in employment. So technology does not necessarily replace people, but rather causes a shift in the job market. As is has been doing for centuries.
Most people are probably aware of the fact that they receive customized ads (and news-items) via their social media platforms. Even though this is meant to improve consumer experience (by tailoring ads to our interest), many people are uncomfortable with how much ‘the system’ seems to know about them. In plain words: they think it’s scary.
People are also concerned about how their data are being handled, which is not always with the greatest care, as shown by several recent Facebook scandals. It comes as no surprise then that people are reluctant to use technology that requires critical data such as healthcare or banking apps.
How to solve the problem?
It’s more than likely that time will solve some of the issues mentioned above. Artificial intelligence and other technological developments will enter our lives step by step. We will soon get used to them, like we’ve gotten used to computers and smartphones. We may think of new tech as a revolution at the moment, but in reality it’s more like an evolution: an on-going process delivering logical solutions that soon will seem to have been around forever.
Tech companies should be aware however, that trust is built slowly and can be destroyed in a heartbeat. Trust in technology, like trust between people, takes time to build. Tech companies should take responsibility by being transparent about their purposes and by giving people the option to be involved in, for example, AI decision-making processes. At the very least it means that data will be securely handled and never misused.