Robots are like immigrants: The more you know them, the better you like them

Who can resist those eyes?
Who can resist those eyes?
Image: University of Birmingham
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In the UK, upstart rightwing party UKIP won a substantial 12.6% of the popular vote in last month’s election, largely thanks to its anti-immigrant platform. Yet the areas where UKIP’s support was strongest were also the ones with some of the lowest levels of migration in the country.

It is ”something of a paradox,” notes Oxford University’s Migration Observatory (pdf), that “while vast majorities view migration as harmful to Britain, few claim that their own neighbourhood is having problems due to migrants.” That is, the most popular type of immigrant is the one that lives next door.

So it is with robots

A new survey (pdf) from Eurobarometer, which conducts opinion polls on behalf of the European Commission, found that people with experience using robots think well of them. As a result, they are more likely to feel comfortable about drones, autonomous cars, and buying robots of their own. The pollster defined a robot as “a machine which can assist humans in everyday tasks without constant guidance or instruction,” which means that a semi-autonomous vacuum cleaner applies but not a blender.

The survey found that 28% of people who use robots said they would be comfortable travelling in driverless cars. Only 20% of those without first-hand experience with robots said the same. A third of the former group are okay sending goods in autonomous vehicles versus just a quarter of the latter lot. Robot users were also less likely to see civil drones as a threat to privacy than those without similar experience.

They take our jobs…

The similarities between public sentiment about robots and immigrants don’t end there: both are broadly suspected of stealing people’s jobs. But just as countries with a large number of immigrants, like Germany and the UK, tend to view foreigners less suspiciously, perhaps if people spent more time with robots they would change their minds about whether they are friends or foes.