Robots are seeping their way into everyday life, but Americans are split on what the U.S. Federal Government should do about it.
Forecasts of major job losses in the decades to come, as well as dire warnings from leading scientific thinkers — like Elon Musk and the late Stephen Hawking about superintelligence that may surpass human abilities — haven't led a majority of Americans to support the idea of creating a Federal Robotics Commission, at least not yet.
“People are wondering what this is going to mean for their jobs, how they’re going to earn a living, and what it will mean for their children,” said Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institute, which recently released a survey about Americans' views on robotics this week.
The survey was undertaken by researchers at the Brookings Institution through an online U.S. national poll of 2,021 adult internet users between June 4 and 6, 2018. Responses were weighted by gender, age and region to match the demographics of the national internet population as estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey.
“People see the march towards robotics accelerating,” West said. “They think that robots are going to become quite common in the coming decades, and they’re worried about what it means for the economy and society in general.”
The Brookings survey found that 61 percent of Americans are uncomfortable with robots. Fifty-two percent believe it is either somewhat likely or very likely that robots will take over most human activity within the next 30 years.
Even amid the majority concerns, only 32 percent of Americans support the creation of a Federal Robotics Commission to regulate development and usage of robots. However, 39 percent of Americans between ages 18 and 34 were in favor of the robotics agency, compared to only 25 percent of older people (55 and over). That's the result that West found most interesting, suggesting that support for the idea may continue to increase.
“If young people hold on to those views as they age, that would suggest we’re headed towards more government regulation,” West said.
The Trump administration does have a major reorganization of federal agencies on its agenda, including a proposed combination of the Department of Education and Labor. President Donald Trump also has been focused on the importance of technology in recent comments, and within a geopolitical context. He endorsed the creation of a sixth military branch, a Space Force, and has been worried about China's plans to dominate the AI race as part of its Made in China 2025 plan.
Brookings first proposed the idea of a Federal Robotics Commission years ago in a paper written by Ryan Calo, now a law professor at the University of Washington. He argued that there are historical precedents to technological advances leading to the creation of new federal agencies: The development of the Federal Radio Commission after radios gained popularity in 1926 ultimately led to the establishment of the Federal Communications Commission.
Calo worries that the current method of addressing robotics in a piecemeal manner could result in the United States being surpassed by other nations in innovation. "Other nations that are investing more heavily in robotics and, specifically, in developing a legal and policy infrastructure for emerging technology will leapfrog the United States in innovation for the first time since the creation of steampower," Calo wrote in 2014.
His original idea was for a commission that would not directly regulate the use of robots, but combine experts in areas from sociology to law to computer science, to make decisions and “advise on all issues at all levels” that the federal government isn’t equipped to make, he said.
Calo isn't convinced the new survey is indicative that more regulation of robotics is coming in the future, but he does think younger generations are currently caught between weighing the benefits and the potential harms of technology. “They’re concerned because they grew up experiencing the harms of the internet along with its advantages,” Calo said. “I think we’ve inappropriately written off this new generation, as though somehow they were tolerant of all the harms that information can cause,” he said. “They’re sick of it, and they’re worried about it, and I think that this is a good data point.”
Although people are increasingly aware that robotics will affect their life — whether by drones, automated cars or robots in the workplace — Calo thinks it would be years before a governing robotics agency appears, at least three to four years from now, he said.