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Robots and artificial intelligence (AI) appeal to the imagination of the general public. Research in eleven countries into people’s attitudes towards these technologies has shown that they feel uncomfortable with robots that look like humans and exhibit human behavior. A study of the SIENNA project shows that people assume that their lives and society will change as artificial intelligence and robotics are increasingly applied. They also expect the degree of inequality in society to increase as a result.

We are getting used to interacting with intelligent machines. We bring robot vacuum cleaners into our living rooms and ask Siri, Alexa, or Google to help us with the navigation when we drive our cars. Robotic dogs, such as the Sony Aibo, are used in the care of dementia patients. These developments are already visible. Society relies more and more on these technologies. Almost every day we use smart devices and intelligent software.

Also read: Service robots have to think like people, but they’ll never become human

As part of the EU’s SIENNA project, which is led by UTwente, research has been conducted among 11,000 adults from Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Sweden, Brazil, South Africa, South Korea and the United States about their attitude towards these new technologies. In all countries where the research was carried out, respondents expect the rapid development of intelligent devices that could lead to artificial understanding and communication on a human level. Their expectation is that this will change society.

Half of the interviewees do not want robots to look and behave like humans.

80% of those questioned think that AI and rapid developments in robots will significantly change their country over the next 20 years. Less than half (46%) were positive about the impact these devices can have on their country, a third (30%) were even negative. The Dutch and South Koreans are the most positive (61% and 55%), the French the least positive (31%). More than half of those questioned (55%) think that these technologies give them less control over their own lives, only 13% think they have more control.

With respect to robotics, more than half of those questioned (52%) said that they did not want robots to look and behave like humans in their workplace or in the public space. Less than a third (29%) have no problem with it. The South Koreans accept this the most (52%), the French the least (17%). In none of the countries did more than a third of the participants find the idea of a robot as a romantic partner acceptable.

“Unless everyone has equal access to technology, we run the risk of building a society of inequality.”

Philip Brey
Philip Brey © UTwente

“Most people are open to robots and artificial intelligence, but they reject robots with human traits,” says Philip Brey, professor of science philosophy at Twente University and coordinator of the SIENNA project. “We know that interaction with machines can offer enormous advantages. But with increasing dependence on technology, we can also lose some of our autonomy. Unless everyone has equal access to technology, we run the risk of building a society in which inequality prevails.”

According to Philip Brey, the research clearly shows that people see a greater degree of inequality as one of the dangers, with the result that individual autonomy is endangered. “The data from these studies are a snapshot of what people know about technology and how they see the benefits and dangers,” says Brey.

The SIENNA project

The SIENNA project (Stakeholder-informed ethics for new technologies with high socio-economic and human rights impact) was funded by the European Union in the framework of the H2020 research and innovation program. The project focuses on ethical and legal issues in three new technological areas under development: human genomics, human enhancement, and the interaction between man and machine. The SIENNA project is coordinated by the University of Twente and has 12 partners in Europe, Asia, Africa and North and South America.

The results of the SIENNA research are available at https://www.sienna-project.eu/publications/.