How can you build a market for a cutting-edge product in an emerging field when people widely distrust it? That’s a catch-22 for the innovative businesses tackling automation in its many forms. On one hand, artificial intelligence can help people to be more productive at work while leading more convenient, cost-effective lives. On the other, experts predict that robots will replace humans in the workforce, which workers fear will take their jobs.
In the past year, something surprising has happened. Americans are warming to a future with automation, according to a new survey by Ipsos with the Center for Business Analytics at the McIntire School of Commerce at the University of Virginia. The survey compared people’s attitudes about automation to a similar survey from the prior year.
It revealed that people are less worried that automation destroys jobs, less concerned about safety when using automated devices, and less fearful that automation leads to social isolation. They also believe more that smart technology has made products more accessible and are more favorable about its overall benefits. In other words, Americans seem more optimistic about the future of automation.
How consumers evaluate automation
Consumers evaluate autonomous technology on familiarity and risk of use, says Chris Jackson, a vice president at Ipsos. Technologies seen as familiar and low risk are those that people will have an easier time adopting. Technologies that people see as high-risk and less familiar they’ll have a harder time accepting. “The challenge for brands is to make the technologies they develop seen as low-risk and familiar,” Jackson says. “If they do that they will be more effective at broadening their audience.”
A convergence of trends has contributed to that, including ongoing experiments with self-piloted vehicles. Then consider that today we have robotic pizza, sushi makers and bartenders; self-operating vacuums and mowing machines, and touchscreen ordering kiosks at fast food chains.
Rise of the virtual assistant
At least some credit for boosting American’s familiarity with smart technology could go to the rise of the smart speaker. It uses automation for simple tasks like playing music, turning off your lights, or shopping for essentials, among others.
In June 2017, virtual assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa and the Google Home were in just 8 percent of American homes with Wi-Fi. As of February 2018, one-fifth of households had a smart speaker. In just nine months, smart speaker ownership more than doubled, including a more than 40 percent increase during the holiday shopping month. They’re the fastest-growing consumer technology.
“It makes sense that more smart speakers means more chances to have people connect and automate their homes,” says John Carroll III, senior client officer at Ipsos.
Yet, just because Americans are becoming more favorable with automation doesn’t necessarily mean people don’t see risks. More than half of Americans (57%) still say that automation can be a social isolator. Just 15 percent of U.S. passengers say they would be comfortable in a pilotless plane even though most flights operate in autopilot between take-off and landing. Americans and Canadians are less receptive to the idea of driverless cars than people in other countries, according to a global Ipsos survey on mobility.
Gateways to automation
The flipside is that most Americans believe automation is making products and services even more accessible. Amazon just announced a slew of voice-enabled products, and it’s facing stiff competition from Google and other rivals. At the same time, smart speakers are gaining traction among consumers as a gateway to more automation.
“Smart speakers are central to that,” says Vincent Thielke, research analyst at technology industry analyst firm Canalys. “Now people are discovering the potential and opportunity for what they can do with their voice. And maybe it’s making them more accepting of home automation and technologies like smart lightbulbs, security cameras and doorbells.”
How can these technologies take advantage of this positive direction in social acceptance? Smart speaker makers appear to have found a powerful social psychology phenomenon, the “mere-exposure effect,” according to Janine Beekman, associate research scientist at Ipsos.
“If you have at least an ambivalent attitude toward something, the more you are exposed to it the more you favor it,” Beekman says, “We like that which is familiar. Continued exposure breeds understanding, which over time disarms the threat.”