The partners of Loup Ventures in Minneapolis have come up with a Robot Fear Index even though they aren’t afraid of robots at all.
These venture capitalists envision a future with the technology of artificial intelligence, augmented reality, robotics and virtual reality used every day, by nearly everyone. So why publish an indicator of how much many of us fear that kind of future?
The best case, according to Loup managing partner Andrew Murphy, is that the index lets the firm track a gentle decline in fear of robots as people get more and more comfortable with automation. His worst case is that irrational fears escalate, yet by reporting on those fears his firm remains part of the public conversation and tries to help consumers better understand a topic that’s often misunderstood.
A score of 100 means almost all of us are terrified, and their first ever calculation of the index landed at 31.5. The Loup Ventures robot fear index will be regularly updated, and Murphy said it’s likely the index someday will rise, maybe driven by headlines of an incident like a self-driving car crash, before it drifts back down. As for now, an initial score of 31.5 suggests that we are cautiously at ease with robots.
A similar conclusion can be drawn from the last ranking of Americans’ greatest fears, from an annual survey done at Chapman University in California. More than six in 10 of the respondents were afraid or very afraid of corrupt government officials, topping the list, while fear of “computers replacing people in the workforce” was near the bottom. Not quite 17 percent or so said they were afraid of that, about as many as were listed being afraid or very afraid of needles or a large volcano. Not that far away on the list was the fear of zombies.
Maybe one reason Americans are not that afraid of robots was suggested by Loup’s first report on its index, the simple observation that robot technology isn’t just in our future. It’s all around us already.
In Loup’s own survey, the partners found that more than two-thirds of respondents had used a digital assistant, like the iPhone’s Siri, to dial their home telephone number in the previous three months. A similar percentage had used some sort of robotic technology, like maybe a robotic vacuum cleaner or toy.
Without even bothering to look closely, it’s easy to see just how common robots have become, including in the daily flow of news across the desk,
At one end of the spectrum there’s the absurd, like the photograph that Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos just published on social media of him at the controls of a 13-foot robot out of South Korea called Method 2. This machine was invited to an Amazon.com conference on automation, and it’s both so large and so classically sci-fi looking that technology observers still wonder whether it’s nothing more than a very expensive prank.
At the other end is the kind of commercial news that’s so commonplace that had I not been building a file on robot technophobia I would have missed it completely. It was news, from earlier this month, from the industrial robotics trade association, of records for orders and shipments of robotic technology set in 2016. Orders for assembly robots built in North America had increased more than 60 percent last year.
Deploying robotic technology to replace repetitive work done by people in manufacturing processes is obviously well underway, and not just in higher labor-cost regions like North America or Europe. The manufacturing giant that Apple and other technology firms rely on in Asia, Foxconn Technology, not quite a year ago made headlines in a Hong Kong newspaper when a government official said it had cut payroll at one of its Chinese facilities from 110,000 people to 50,000 people by deploying its “Foxbots.”
This is the same company that in January said it was considering building, in a partnership with other firms, a $7 billion facility for making TVs and other displays in the United States. Foxconn sees a U.S. plant as one way to get products from the loading dock at the factory to American consumers more quickly. Displays are bulky to ship, making quick air transport impractical. But if that factory gets built it won’t be just people building the TVs.
A similar strategy of using industrial automation to bring manufacturing much closer to consumers in Europe and North America is being rolled out by Adidas, the German-based shoe and athletic apparel rival of Nike. It has its second “Speedfactory” opening this year in greater Atlanta, a factory using mostly automation to eventually build a half-million pairs of shoes a year with fewer than 200 workers on the shop floor.
Of course robot technophobia has long included a more fundamental fear than just watching the robots start doing the work that people once did. The word robot was derived from a Czech word for forced labor, coined for a stage play that made its premier nearly 100 years ago. The final act had a sophisticated robot workforce killing all of the people except for one character, spared because he worked with his hands as the robots did.
The fear that a robot harms a person someday maybe isn’t completely irrational, but of course that’s already happened, too. The first worker killed by an industrial robot was in a Ford Motor plant in Michigan.
That happened 38 years ago.