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Robots and artificial intelligence. How do the world’s citizens view them? We speak with sociologist Marita Carballo

Regarding artificial intelligence and robotics, world opinion is divided between those who see their potential and advantages, and those who see them as a threat they must protect themselves from. We speak with Maria Carballo, President of the World Association of Public Opinion and Research (WAPOR), who favours considerable investments in order to close the gap between the “included” and the “excluded”, and asks us to question what values we wish to build our societies upon so as to make sure that the development of new technologies is “truly at the service of each person and of our communal home”

New technologies, artificial intelligence (AI), robotics: an opportunity or a danger? A potential or a threat? World public opinion is divided between expectations and worries. The most widespread fear is of massive job losses. Marita Carballo is President of the Academia Nacional de Ciencias Morales y Políticas de l’Argentina and of the World Association of Public Opinion and Research (WAPOR), an international professional fellowship conducting scientific research on public opinion across the world. We met with her in the Vatican, during the workshop on “Robo ethics. Human, machines and health”, organized recently by the Pontifical Academy for Life.

What is the attitude of world public opinion regarding robotics and artificial intelligence, as seen from the vantage point of your global analysis?

We have conducted research on the regional, national, continental and world levels in the past few years. If I may give a simplified but global report, I’d say that around 70% of “global citizens” believes that the technological revolution 4.0 has brought and can bring benefits to people’s lives. The greatest expectations are in the field of medicine (48%) and fighting climate change (45%). On the other hand, public opinion is divided on the subject of employment and jobs. In Europe especially, the benefits associated with new technologies and AI are perceived within the private sphere of “life at home” and in terms of greater efficiency and speed of communication and transport. In a survey of 18 Latin-American countries we found instead that 36% of people are doubtful or even opposed to the use of robots, drones, self-driving cars, and body sensors. In Argentina, only 25% of millennials is favourable to new technologies, but they are wary about the idea of boarding a self-driving car, undergoing remote or robotic surgery, or consuming laboratory-produced meat.

More generally, the most “open-minded” are males under the age of 35 and in good financial standing.

What is the relationship between artificial intelligence, digital platforms and the new socio-political arena?

 

Today, social media platforms are a key source of social and political information. Across North and South America, six out of every ten internet users say that they follow political and social topics mostly on social networks, but only 13% is able to discern the quality and trustworthiness of the news items there as opposed to those in traditional media, demonstrating scant critical skills and a high degree of acceptance. Nonetheless, according to Gallup International Association, almost 8 out of 10 people around the world receive fake news at least once a month (76%), while on average 35% receives it every day, with much higher rates in Hungary (65% of citizens), Ukraine (61%), Spain (60%) and Albania (56%). The Edelman Trust Barometer shows that trust in these sources is diminishing. A Pew Research Center (USA) study reveals that two thirds (66%) of all links tweeted on the most popular news sites are posted by automatic accounts, while only one third (34%) is published by people. In short, a relatively small army of very active robots is managing a large chunk of the news.

So disinformation and manipulation lurk on social networks, particularly when trolls and hate speakers “band together”.

What are the impacts on the future of employment and social inclusion?

According to an authoritative research, around 1.8 million jobs will be wiped out by 2020, but over 2.3 million will be created. Repetitive and high-risk jobs, jobs that are physically harmful or  dangerous, especially jobs which expose workers to toxic chemicals, will disappear. However, the impact of robotics and automation on the job market is still a subject of debate among the public. On the one side, pessimists see the technological revolution as a menace, and predict that the digital revolution will inevitably bring job losses. Four out of five people in Latin America hold this opinion, with high numbers in Malaysia and the Philippines as well. On the other extreme, the enthusiasts – especially in Scandinavia and Germany – say that more jobs will be created, while repetitive, dangerous and harmful tasks will be carried out by robots. People will therefore turn to qualified and creative work, which machines will never be able to carry out, but certainly the most vulnerable and poorer groups, those with lower levels of education, are at risk of losing their jobs.

Acceptance of artificial intelligence and robotics is greater when they are in a “supporting role” to human action, rather than entirely replacing it. For example, they are said to be “useful in assisting doctors, not in replacing them”.

In this scenario, what is your takeaway?

First of all, it is necessary to implement ethical codes for robot designers and producers; but the entire technological revolution linked to AI would require an interdisciplinary reflection and analysis of the psychological, cultural, social and political consequences of robotics on society. We must also avoid increasing inequality, the widening of the gap between the “included” and the “excluded”. This is why global investment in education and training in order to turn the “technologically vulnerable” – those who lack vital skills – into qualified professionals is urgently needed. It is a wide-reaching cultural action which is not going to be a quick one, as we will start seeing results only in the medium term. Robotics and AI are neither good nor evil in and of themselves. They certainly have transformed our environment and will continue to do so, while we ourselves are very slow in deciding how to regulate and direct them. The crucial question remains:

what values do we wish to build our society upon?

Here, the answer must arise from the sober encounter of different voices, points of view, sensibilities and cultures, in order to generate a consensus that can lead to shared action among government, academia, business and civil society.

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