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A sign of the times: People are becoming more suspicious of robots

The authors of a new paper describe their findings as a “warning sign.”

A sign of the times: People are becoming more suspicious of robots
[Source Photos: PhonlamaiPhoto/iStock, Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg/Getty Images, Sony]

Do you trust robots? A new paper published in Computers in Human Behavior, based on the responses of more than 80,000 people, suggests that peoples’ feelings about machines are more complex than you might expect: The more robots can do–and the closer they get to actual people–the less we trust them. If said people live in Europe, that is.

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The research, which focused on interviews of 80,396 citizens in 27 European countries in 2012, 2014, and 2017, revealed that European citizens are becoming less and less trusting of robots as time passes and machines grow more advanced. Negative feelings are especially strong in women and blue-collar workers, the authors report.

What’s behind this suspicion–and can it be solved by savvy design? Some robotics companies are betting on it, hiring Pixar engineers to make their robots friendlier. Japanese companies like Lovot and Sony have seen success with creating likable robots, too; in Japan, robotic nurses and helpers are now the norm. Still, I would argue that there is an “uncanny valley” for robots, a point at which humans feel discomfort when they look at a machine imitating a person. Just look at the overwhelmingly negative response to humanoid androids like Sophia, or the fact that people have no problem accepting and interacting with distinctly non-humanoid robots. This offers designers a clue: Don’t attempt to imitate humans until you can really perfectly duplicate them.

But according to the study’s authors, Timo Gnambs and Markus Appel, there wasn’t a connection between the design of a robot and how much people disliked it. Instead, peoples’ negative attitudes toward robots arise simply from the degree of interaction they have with it. When interviewees were presented with the concept of robots cleaning homes and offices or rescuing humans in dangerous situations, the results were more or less positive. But, the moment the questions veered into close-encounter territory, like robotic nurses and autonomous cars, people became more negative. Their criticism grew as their intimacy to the robot itself grew, regardless of its appearance.

So, the key to robot acceptance doesn’t seem to rely on design alone. As others have pointed out, the key may be culture, experience, and education. Look to Japan, a country where robots have long been pervasive both in culture and the workplace. It’s no coincidence that Japanese companies lead in robotics, with Honda, Sony, or Mitsubishi making machines that do everything from taking care of old people in nursing homes to watching over babies and toddlers. Synthetic beings have become normalized.

Can design bridge the gap for Europeans? Perhaps. But the more intuitive solution is the same one that has helped people accept every other technology in history: give it time.

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About the author

Jesus Diaz founded the new Sploid for Gawker Media after seven years working at Gizmodo, where he helmed the lost-in-a-bar iPhone 4 story. He's a creative director, screenwriter, and producer at The Magic Sauce and a contributing writer at Fast Company.

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