Survey: Americans are not concerned about robots at work

Many would like to see repetitive tasks automated, few want to work with non-humans.

MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab: Robots will take over parts of your job, not all of it

You've seen the headlines about robots coming after your jobs, but a new report debunks the fears and finds Americans are less worried about automation in the workplace than it may seem.

And it was those "ample fear-based, rhetoric-filled headlines" that prompted the report, Americans' Perceptions of the Future of Work, by the business process outsourcing provider Sykes.

The survey of over 1,500 Americans across the US found that over two-thirds (67%) had a positive connotation with intelligent, automation-based technology.

SEE: Artificial intelligence: A business leader's guide (free PDF)

While that may be the case, demographics play a key role in Americans' perception of robots in the workplace, said Tara Chklovski, founder and CEO of Technovation, a global technology education nonprofit aimed at empowering girls in low-income communities.

Technovation conducted its own survey in 2018 of 1,566 low-income families to get a sense of what people are feeling with respect to artificial intelligence and what their fears are.

"What we found was 80% of low-income families were very scared AI would replace their jobs, and they were very afraid their value system was being compromised," Chklovski said. "AI was taking away a very core work ethic, and they felt the value of [their] hard work was being undermined by AI."

Respondents expressed specific fears about jobs in traditional manufacturing going away, she said.

On the flip side, though, 40% of respondents in the same survey said they realize AI w coming and saw the technology as "a way for them to connect with their children and grandchildren," who are adopting or will be adopting systems and apps with AI-embedded technologies, Chklovski said.

Will work with robots, won't take orders

The Sykes survey also revealed that no respondents knew anyone who had lost their job as a result of automation technologies being implemented; and almost 61% said the company they work for had not held open discussions about the potential impact of automation technologies.

While nearly three-fourths of American workers say they are interested in the idea of humans and automation technologies working, very few are open to the idea of taking direction from anything non-human. 

Survey respondents said they were more willing to take direction from a human boss (87%) over a software program (13%). This sentiment is shared among all surveyed age groups and geographic regions.

The 45- to 54-year-old group, predominantly Gen Xers, is most concerned about potential job loss due to the implementation of new automation technologies (45%).

"I wasn't necessarily surprised that American workers seemed open to working with these technologies given how we can now automate the most repetitive and boring parts of our work — allowing us more time to focus on truly creative and strategic work," said Sykes' Chief Strategy Officer Ian Barkin.

But Barkin added that he didn't necessarily expect nearly three-fourths of respondents to say the idea of humans and automation technologies working together interested them.

Another finding was that only slightly over 21% of respondents said their employer has had discussions about the impact of automation technologies at work.

"There's ample opportunity for further education about how automation will impact the future of how we work—in any field—and for regular, deliberate upskilling," Barkin said "Training today's workforce for tomorrow isn't a one-off professional development program; it's intentional, individual, and often."

Industries that could be impacted

The Sykes survey asked 17 questions—from what American workers are doing to stay current in workplace technologies, if they're interested in working with automated technologies, if they'd be more or less likely to apply to a company investing in automation tech to how their employers are preparing them for the future of work.

Agriculture, construction, finance and insurance, legal services, the military, and manufacturing are among the career fields respondents said they believe will be the most impacted within the next five years.

Respondents to the Sykes' survey offered suggestions for several work tasks they'd like to see automated, including:

  •         Answering phone calls
  •         Confirming phone calls
  •         Sending follow-up emails
  •         Completing spreadsheets
  •         Tedious organizing and filing
  •         Keeping track of incoming data
  •         Filling out the same papers repeatedly
  •         Scheduling meetings

Nearly half (43%) of surveyed American workers do not believe the US government has a responsibility to compensate people whose jobs are eliminated because of workplace automation.

Of those who do (57%), 25% said US welfare programs are the answer, while nearly one-third (32%) of respondents believed a universal basic income program should be established to address jobs eliminated due to workplace automation.

Chklovski said she's not sure how focused people are on automation in the workplace yet. "I think most people live very hectic lives and are not thinking about what's going to happen in 10 years. Polls are interesting, but they don't necessarily reflect what their choices will be."

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