German Angst of smart robots

A 'Pepper' robot is presented at the Softbank Robotoics booth at the CeBIT computer fair in Hanover, northern Germany, 11 June 2018. [EPA-EFE/FOCKE STRANGMANN]

The scary thing about AI is that it is hard to predict how far technology will advance – and whether it will be possible to politically control it in such a way that mankind retains the upper hand. Scepticism prevails among Germans, a new study shows. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Of course, AI offers many opportunities: It can support medical diagnoses, improve industrial working conditions, optimise transport systems and much more.

But AI can also control drones in war zones, decide about life and death, run over pedestrians with autonomous driving Teslas or replace qualified workers with robots – if you let it do so.

The hodgepodge of opportunities and risks is difficult to assess. Not in vain did star physicist Stephen Hawking once refer to AI as the “best or worst thing mankind ever invented.” It all depends on what you make of it.

Commission vows to spend €1.5 billion on artificial intelligence by 2020

The European Commission announced on Wednesday (25 April) that it will invest €1.5 billion into artificial intelligence research over the next three years, and was promptly hit with criticism for drafting its strategy years after the United States and China started their own massive funding plans.

In Germany, as everywhere else, opinions differ in terms of AI, a recent YouGov survey shows. Almost every second person (45%) has a balanced risk-benefit ratio, but one quarter (26%) rates the risk as higher than the benefit. Only 15% of respondents see AI as having more benefits than risks. In general, scepticism prevails.

However, expectations of AI are also very much related to age: the older, the more sceptical. This is not surprising but is very typical for issues technological progress.

“While the millennials (18-36 years) have a more balanced perception of benefits (18%) and risk (22%), the baby boomers are much more anxious (13% see benefit, 29% risk),” the YouGov evaluation of the survey states. The baby boomers today are between 54 and 72 years old. Between Millennials and Baby Boomers, Generation X ranges in between, both in terms of age and survey results.

However, AI is not equal to AI. As already explained, the systems can be used in very different areas.

Scepticism in the survey is particularly high when justice issues are concerned. For example, 77% of respondents refuse its use in job interviews, even though AI may be able to make more objective assessments than a hiring manager who sometimes might not like the applicant’s face.

The EU is right to refuse legal personality for Artificial Intelligence

The European Commission’s recent outline of an artificial intelligence strategy does not give in to European Parliament calls to grant personhood for AI. The Commission is right in this, though not for the reasons mentioned in a recent open letter published by experts, writes Thomas Burri.

According to the survey, Germans find AI-driven selection even worse than the use of AI-controlled weapon systems in armed conflict.

For example, respondents have fewer problems with autonomous driving cars. Only a small majority of 52% opposes it – but it is a majority. Even when it comes to telephone calls with a service hotline, only a small majority has something against it, when they would speak to a robot at the other end of the line.

There is some bad news for journalists: According to the survey, a majority of respondents favours the use of AI when it comes to producing news. However, this applied only to very simple texts where no major journalistic skills are needed.

For example, 45% of them would agree that an AI system could draft a report on a football match (41% against). For a company’s stock price report, 49% are in favour and 37% against.

Overall, the results reveal great scepticism. For politicians, this means more information, more public debate and more policy measures that give the AI clear boundaries and rules.

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