A study finds that workers in countries with greater income and societal inequality are more likely to see disruptive technologies like AI in negative terms.

As we step rapidly towards a machine-powered cognitive revolution, the future of work has increasingly been dominated by headlines like “robots are taking your job”.

According to a World Economic Forum report, 85 million jobs globally will be displaced by robotics and automation. Conversely, advanced technologies will create 97 million new jobs that require more skills and training.

That disruption is creating a lot of anxiety. For some, greater automation indicates the end of drudgery and mind-numbing tasks. But for others, this rapid development spells a jobless future.

A new study conducted by researchers at the University of Central Florida has found that workers in countries with greater amounts of income and societal inequality were more likely to perceive robots and artificial intelligence (AI) as threats.

The study examined countries in Europe and was published in the journal Technology, Mind and Behavior.

It found that in countries like the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Finland, robots are more likely to be viewed in positive terms than in countries like Greece and Spain, where income inequality is greater.

Data from over 13,000 respondents from 28 EU member states were used, gathered from a 2017 Eurobarometer public opinion survey that examined if there was an association between workers viewing AI and robots as threats and a country’s inequality.

The researchers found a positive association between income inequality through an economic measure called the Gini index, and perceptions that AI and robots pose threats to general job loss.

Building on psychological research on inequality, the study’s authors “anticipate that people living in more unequal societies will, on average, perceive robots and AI as greater workforce threats.”

They highlight that while the objective potential impacts of AI/robots are one thing, the primary focus is what people believe these new technologies are capable of.

“None of this is happening in the next year or two,” writes tech journalist Sean Captain.

“The 5,10, or more years it takes for robots to catch up in both capability and numbers offer time for the current and next generation of workers to learn more advanced skills beyond what machines can do. And those skills could earn them more money, in more interesting jobs. Rather than people losing their employment to machines, the machines may simply fill in for occupations that people no longer want to do anyway.”

While the study’s focus was on European countries, co-author Mindy Shoss, a professor in UCF’s Department of Psychology, says the findings could help better understand the issue in the US as well.

“The US always ranks pretty high on inequality and societal inequality,” Shoss said. “Given that, I would suspect that there probably are, on average, similar negative views of AI and robot technology in the US.”

Shoss said that in highly unequal societies there are greater inequalities in income, health and education, as well as more attention given to the social mobility of people, which leads to anxiety and uncertainty about income, status and job security.

“Countries that have more people in unequal standing, on average, tend to see these technologies more as a threat,” she said.

Shoss added that based on the study’s findings, the issue of inequality should be taken more seriously into account when designing and implementing technology, as well as addressing the ways advanced technology could improve jobs or incomes to increase public acceptance.

Source: TRT World