A January 2019 poll conducted by the Center for the Governance of Change at Spain’s IE University has found considerable anxiety throughout Europe about the pace of automation and technological change, Quartz reported—though it also found that about a quarter of respondents believed that maybe artificial intelligence should be in charge, rather than political leaders.
Approximately 70 percent of the 1,600 adults (from the UK, Spain, Germany, France, Ireland, Italy, and the Netherlands) believed that “if they are not appropriately controlled, new technologies will cause more harm than good to society in the coming decade.” 67 percent also agreed that, alongside climate change, regulation of new technology is the “biggest challenge that the EU faces right now.” Just over half (about 56 percent) stated they were concerned about a future where robots carry out most labor, while just 30 percent expressed enthusiasm on the subject.
About 68 percent also expressed concern that online socialization will begin to outpace in-person interactions between people, the poll found.
A minority of respondents, however, are more than ready for the robots to give up the pretense of serving man and just take over: 25 percent of Europeans said they would like an artificial intelligence to “make important decisions about the running of their country.” In some countries, this was even higher; those in Germany, Ireland, Italy, and the UK were all within one percent of 30 percent, while 43 percent of respondents in the Netherlands said yes as well.
The center’s executive director, Diego Rubio, wrote in a statement that “This mindset, which probably relates to the growing mistrust citizens feel towards governments and politicians, constitutes a significant questioning of the European model of representative democracy, since it challenges the very notion of popular sovereignty.”
Europe has outpaced the U.S. in regulating technology in many respects. Last year, the sweeping General Data Protection Regulation took effect, imposing stringent new privacy and opt-in requirements on businesses that collect consumer data. It’s already been used to fine the likes of Google and significantly increase disclosure of data breaches, while businesses like Facebook could face steep penalties for failing to protect user information. The EU has also pursued the kind of antitrust cases that, in the U.S., seem to rarely materialize.
On Monday, the European Commission’s First Vice President Frans Timmermans responded to the recent live broadcasting of the mass murder of Muslims attending mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, saying “The first task of any public authority is to protect its citizens - and if we see you (tech giants) as a threat to our citizens, we will regulate and if you don’t work with us, we will probably regulate badly.”
On automation, the report noted, there appears to be less being done.
“The vast majority of Europeans expect their governments to set new laws and taxes to limit automation and prevent job displacement, even if that means slowing down economic progress,” Rubio added in the statement. “These results are consistent across countries, age groups, genders and, perhaps more surprisingly, ideologies. And yet, these kinds of measures are currently out of the political debate.”
As for an unstoppable robot leader, it’s not clear from the poll whether respondents truly want an AI overlord (which likely won’t be possible for a very long time, if it is at all) or are just expressing frustration with their current, fleshy overlords. A September 2018 Pew Research Center poll found that the median level of trust in legislatures was just 43 percent—not that reassuring a number, though it seems to be far better than the level of trust U.S. respondents said they had in elected officials earlier that year. There’s not much to indicate that a computer would fare much better.