Survey: Americans welcome our new robot overlords

A new survey of consumer attitudes toward automation has found that Americans are ready to accept robot workers in growing a number of roles. And yet, at the same time, they remain complacent about the threat artificial intelligence poses to their own jobs.

The survey, commissioned by customer service firm LivePerson, asked 2,000 American consumers a series of questions about robots and artificial intelligence. Among the jobs that at least 1-in-5 people said they would “trust” a robot or AI to perform were:

  • Cashier (55%)
  • Factory worker (52%)
  • Customer service representative (28%)
  • Taxi driver (22%)
  • Mechanic (22%)
  • and Accountant (20%)

Smaller — but not insubstantial — numbers were ready to accept robot pilots, truck drivers, and teachers.

This theoretical trust in robot workers may be an outgrowth of consumers’ daily interactions with intelligent machines. Some 85% of respondents reported interacting with ATMs, 67% with voice recognition assistants such as Siri or Alexa, 40% with customer service chatbots, and 7% with self-driving cars.

Despite their growing comfort with robots, however, most Americans are confident that they themselves won’t be replaced anytime soon. Some 66% of people said they “agree” or “strongly agree” that, while many other industries are at risk of losing jobs to automation, their own industry is secure.

Only 15% of respondents were certain — or constantly worried — they their industry would disappear due to automation. Generally, those with professional degrees were the least worried about the threat of automation, while those with minimal education were the most worried.

The top jobs consumers believe susceptible to automation in the next 20 years are manufacturing (68%), followed by banking, accounting, and financial services (52%), and customer service (52%). As for specific jobs, consumers expect factory workers and cashiers to be mostly robots in 20 years.

Underestimating the automation threat?

This view of automation as a contained threat would seem at odds with various expert predictions in recent years.

Research out of Oxford University has found that some 47% of American jobs are highly susceptible to automation. A White House report put out in December 2016 predicts that 3 million drivers — truck drivers and drivers for on-demand services like Uber — will be put out of work soon. A McKinsey & Company report released in January, meanwhile, concluded that 60% of all occupations have at least 30% technically automatable activities.

On the plus side, McKinsey estimates that “automation could raise productivity growth on a global basis by as much as 0.8 to 1.4 percent annually.”

Bill Gates suggested last month that robots should be taxed if they put humans out of work.