forschung leben – the Magazine of the University of Stuttgart

A question of trust

The Germans and their acceptance of intelligent systems

The car searches independently for a parking space, a robot takes care of the grandmother's day-to-day well-being: technically, this will soon be possible. But what do people think of the potential benefits of artificial intelligence (AI)? Researchers at the University of Stuttgart have conducted a representative survey to determine how Germans rate the use of intelligent systems in road traffic and nursing.

You lose concentration for a single moment and plough right into the braking car in front. At present, 90 percent of traffic accidents are caused by human error. A fully automated vehicle could prevent this accident. There is also hope that intelligent technology could prevent tailbacks and facilitate parking management. It could also increase mobility for the disabled or senior citizens.

Together with the German Academy of Engineering Sciences (acatech) and the Körber Foundation, Professors Cordula Kropp, Michael Zwick and Jürgen Hampel from the Institute of Social Sciences (SOWI) at the University of Stuttgart, conducted surveys to determine whether digitization is accepted in view of such technical possibilities. They have published their results in “TechnikRadar”, which examines what Germans think about technology in general and about fully autonomous driving in particular, “Dr. Google” or nursing robotics.

TechnikRadar: Results of the surveys on autonomous driving. (c) acatech, München/Körber-Stiftung, Hamburg
TechnikRadar: Autonomous driving. Hardly a car driver wants to give up responsibility completely.

The Germans are critical of fully autonomous driving, which would involve vehicles driving independently on interstate highways, country roads or in the city and looking for a parking space with no driver input. Overall, only around 16 percent of German motorists are prepared to hand over responsibility to a fully automated vehicle. Almost two thirds (would tend to) reject this. “The population feels very much at the mercy of intelligent systems and political decisions, but has little confidence in their credibility and ability to provide solutions,” says Kropp. Recent data scandals and attacks from the Internet, are also largely to blame for this: In 2017, for example, Deutsche Bahn was affected by the worldwide Trojan attack “WannaCry” and the hackers used the display panels in train stations to demand ransom money.

The population feels very much at the mercy of intelligent systems and political decisions, but has little confidence in their credibility and ability to provide solutions.

Prof. Dr. Cordula Kropp

Fears of data misuse

The Germans are most disturbed by the fact that these vehicles collect and record a lot of personal data, and are worried that this data could be misused and sold, for example to insurance companies, vehicle manufacturers or the advertising industry. “The population is sick of advertising,” says Zwick. In addition, they fear that computer breakdowns could cause traffic chaos or result in Internet attacks. “Imagine criminals blackmailing a driver in his or her car: If they don't pay, their car will be driven into the next best bridge pillar.” Continuing the horror scenario, entire cities could be threatened with the complete shutdown of their traffic systems, which would also affect all emergency services such as police and fire brigades.

Not all European countries are as skeptical about fully automated vehicles as the Germans. The Scandinavian population, for example, is more positive about digital technologies. Zwick suspects that this could be due to greater trust in manufacturers and operators, but above all in political figures and institutions, compared with Germany. Administration services In Sweden have long been completely digitalized due to the sparse population and long distances – and it works. “That's why the Swedes are more familiar with digital progress than the Germans. They don't assume that someone's out to get them.”

Disagreement about nursing robots

Another area of application for digital technology is in the nursing and care professions, which are coming under increasing pressure due to demographic change and the increasing shortage of skilled workers. One possible solution under consideration within the sector would be to use robots. This prompted Cordula Kropp's research group to ask German citizens how they felt about the use of robots in nursing. The result: opinions vary widely. 40 percent of nursing staff rate robots positively, 32 percent reject them and around 28 percent are undecided about the subject.

TechnikRadar: Survey results on robots in care. (c) acatech, München/Körber-Stiftung, Hamburg
TechnikRadar: Robots in care. Human attention as a luxury?

More precisely, however, 81 percent fear that the use of robots will dehumanize nursing practice, and more than half think that only the wealthy will be able to afford care services provided by actual humans in future. “The approval or rejection of care robots will depend to a large extent on whether they are intended to relieve the burden on caregivers or replace them,” observes Zwick. While business and politics - driven by the demands of global competition - are calling for progress at any price, the Germans only accept uninhibited digitization to a limited extent. According to the research team, this is also due to the lack of involvement of the population in political decision making. “The Germans should not feel that they are doomed to be at the mercy of technical progress, but should be involved in its design,” Kropp insists. “It’s up to the politicians and technology operators to gain the confidence of the consumers, and so far that hasn't happened!”

Bettina Künzler


Andrea Mayer-Grenu

Andrea Mayer-Grenu

Scientific Consultant, Research Publications

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