Public Views on Technology Futures

Introduction

Over the last year or so, the relationship between politics and technology has moved from a niche area of interest to tech people like me, into a major public debate that concerns everyone. New and difficult questions have arisen about how society should best police content online while maintaining free speech; how to deal with internet trolls and bots (especially during elections); how to ensure more people can benefit from technological change without harming growth; or how we deal with the growth of powerful artificial intelligence.

If there were easy answers to these questions, we would not discuss them with such regularity. But these issues – which are fundamentally political in nature as well as technological – mostly play out in newspapers or political debates. What’s lacking is input from the public, which is a shame because any approach taken should be informed by what people actually think.

Our Survey

In partnership with Opinium, we conducted some new research examining public opinion, polling 2,000 British adults on the big questions relating to technology. So what is the general public attitude toward tech? I would summarise it as ‘concerned optimism’: generally upbeat and positive, but keen for both Government and tech firms to do more to mitigate any socially harmful consequences.

While there has been a recent wave of negative media about technology in recent months (which some writers have dubbed the ‘techlash’), 50 per cent of Brits are optimistic about technology and the benefits it could bring our society and economy, while only one in 10 see it as more of a threat than an opportunity. This optimism is most pronounced in London, where nearly two-thirds are optimistic (64 per cent).

Technology's Harmful Consequences

And while there has been a slew of recent interest in the risks of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation to people’s jobs, only 35 per cent of Brits feel their job is at risk from this next wave of technological innovation. Again, London stands out – although this time for its consternation, where roughly half are worried about the risks posed to their vocations. It is interesting that London is simultaneously the most optimistic about technology in general, and yet most fearful about its impacts on their own jobs. I’d hazard a guess that most Londoners probably think their current occupation might be at risk – but also that the technology revolution will create plenty more jobs in the years ahead.

Nonetheless, in spite of their broad optimism, the public are clearly worried about the socially harmful consequences of technology.  Overall, our survey finds that British adults share a range of concerns, including extremism (89 per cent), cybercrime (86 per cent), online abuse (70 per cent) and fake news (67 per cent) – with Brits over 55 more likely to express concerns about these issues than the younger generations. More than half of Brits (54 per cent) believe technological benefits will not be shared evenly across society.

Responding to Challenges

All technology creates both new opportunities and new challenges. Perhaps the more interesting question is who is responsible for dealing with these problems. The survey finds that citizens believe both the Government and technology companies should do more to protect society from these harmful consequences and mitigate future risks from the next wave of technological revolution.

Over two-thirds (69 per cent) are concerned that MPs aren’t taking sufficient action to safeguard against the challenges of the next wave of technological change. Given the recent Budget hinted at the UK Government investing more in new technology – notably driverless cars, but artificial intelligence more generally as well –  more effort might be put into planning for any negative consequences of these advances.

Similarly, 76 per cent do not believe that technology companies are devoting enough resources to removing extremist content from their platforms. In particular, social media companies are not trusted when it comes to handling people’s personal information. While 60 per cent of the public are comfortable with sharing personal information with the Government, only 11 per cent are comfortable with sharing similar information with social media. Tech firms have a major trust deficit which they need to address, especially given a growing volume of personal information is likely to be created in the future.

Trade-Offs and Interventions

The public seems to accept that trade-offs need to be made: that any effort to tackle these problems might entail greater intervention from both Government and private industry. They seem willing to bear them too: the public are amenable to sacrificing civil liberties to protect social harm (32 per cent are in favour of a safety-first approach, compared to 23 per cent in favour of protecting civil liberties).

Perhaps even more surprisingly, of the 90 per cent of Brits who think technology companies have a responsibility to police their content, there is a willingness to wait more than three minutes on average to send a text message, in exchange for stricter regulation. Only 19 per cent of Brits feel that over-regulation of technology would damage Britain’s economy.

Generational and Gender Divides

There is a slight generational (and in some cases geographic or gender) divide in respect to some of these attitudes. For example, young Brits are more inclined to favour protecting civil liberties and freedom of speech (34 per cent) than the older generations (14 per cent). Similarly, young people are consistently more optimistic and less cautious about technology’s future impacts – more than twice as likely (25 per cent vs. 11 per cent) than over-55s to believe its benefits will be shared evenly across society.

Women are more cautious about seeing technological innovation as an opportunity (44 per cent women vs. 56 per cent of men). People living in Scotland were found to be consistently more pessimistic compared to other regions; and people who voted to leave the European Union were more likely to view technology as a threat to British society than Remain voters

Conclusion

We are living through exciting and somewhat terrifying times. It is encouraging that so many people remain positive about the role technology will play in society. To maintain that enthusiasm, it is important that both technology firms and Government do more – and are seen to be doing more – to smooth over the inevitable challenges that fast-paced change always creates. Otherwise, these concerns might be translated into hostility, and the benefits of the tech revolution could be lost to everyone.

Methodological Notes

The full data tables for this research can be downloaded here.

Demos is working to facilitate greater education and understanding of the risks and opportunities of technology, and technology regulation, through our Technology Education Project.

Fieldwork for this project was conducted by Opinium Research between 06 to 09 October 2017. Online interviews were filled in by 2,003 UK adults.

This project was conducted to support to launch of the special Technology issue of the Demos Quarterly journal.