Are Singaporeans ready for artificial intelligence and robots in their homes?

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When Vicardo Ng threw a housewarming party last year, his guests noticed there was something special about his home. It seemed to have a mind of its own. For instance, when Ng used a vocal prompt to switch on the television, the lights automatically adjusted for optimal viewing.

Ng has devoted significant resources to turn his Tampines condo into a state-of-the-art smart home, fitted with cameras, sensors and the latest Google Home and Amazon Echo (Alexa) voice-activated speakers.

His balcony never gets wet as rain sensors lower the blinds at the first drop. On leaving the house Ng gestures towards the photo frame by his front door and the lights, fan and air con shut down. When the GPS on his phone registers him as more than 500 metres away from his home for a preprogrammed period of time, his robotic vacuum cleaner springs into action.

“A lot of features get auto-triggered. I think that in many ways, it gives my family a better quality of life,” says Ng, a 39-year-old director with IT Professional Services. He looks forward to the day when home automation will go beyond user-defined protocols and rely on machine-learning and artificial intelligence in its truest sense.

Not all Singaporeans are this enthusiastic and savvy about smart homes. But as a recent international survey run by Blackbox Research shows, they typically feel more comfortable welcoming artificial intelligence (AI) and robots into their homes than elsewhere.

Out of 407 survey respondents from Singapore, 74 per cent said they were quite or very comfortable with having AI controlling such features as their home lights, oven or their shopping list via refrigerator sensors. The six-country survey asked 3,614 respondents how they felt about the various ways that AI and robots are set to enter everyday life.

Singaporeans’ comfort levels with AI and robots elsewhere than at home, such as in retail stores and hotels, were lower. Less than half of Singaporeans said they would feel at ease with robots being used as nursing aids in hospitals (46 per cent) or providing tuition for their children at teaching centres (43 per cent).

Who’s most enthusiastic about integrating AI and robots in everyday life?

Overall, 64 per cent of Singaporeans said that they were comfortable with the general idea of AI and robots becoming more common in everyday life.

Blackbox also ran the survey in China, Japan, Philippines, Indonesia and South Korea. Unsurprisingly, a higher percentage of Japanese respondents relished the idea of using robotics in everyday life when compared to Singaporeans. However, the country whose respondents were keenest wasn’t Japan, or even South Korea – it was China.

A whopping 90 per cent of Chinese people surveyed declared that they were comfortable with integrating robots and AI in their daily life. South Koreans came second (83 per cent) and Japanese, third (74 per cent).

Despite its Smart Nation goal, Singapore’s level of enthusiasm for all things robotic was only ahead of that of Indonesia and Philippines.

Comparative degree of comfort with robots and AI becoming more common in everyday life

David Black, managing director and owner of Blackbox Research, the firm behind the survey, commented that AI only recently emerged as a ‘real thing’ and not something confined to the realm of science-fiction.

“In the last year or two, the conversation about AI has shifted quite markedly from a technology discussion into a community and lifestyle discussion. As such, AI is very much a topic about life today and what we are, as a community, willing to accept in our everyday lives,” said Black.

“What are our boundaries and where do we want to buy time and delegate responsibility? These are now real questions that people will have to think about and answer in the next decade,” he said.

Would you let a domestic robot take over your household chores?

Even when it comes to robots taking over their household chores, Singaporeans need a bit more convincing than many of their counterparts in the other Asian countries surveyed.

Only 67 per cent of Singaporeans said they would be ready to let a domestic robot, a category of service robots, handle their cooking, cleaning and washing. This result placed Singapore on par with Indonesia, lagging behind China, Japan and South Korea.

Comparative degree of comfort with robots and AI being used as domestic helpers

What kind of concerns does robotic help in the home raise?

Google Brain is Google’s deep learning research project. In a 2016 paper, its researchers and others from OpenAI, UC Berkeley and Stanford University emphasised the need to design AI technologies, such as cleaning robots, in such a way as to mitigate a number of accident risks. Just like doctors, a cleaning robot should firstly do no harm. How to train it to throw away empty candy wrappers, but not important credit card receipts that have fallen on the floor? How to get it to explore better ways of doing its job without endangering itself or others?

Such concerns were shared by Singaporeans when asked by Yahoo Singapore about domestic robots.

Cherlyn Chong, 29, entrepreneur, said: “If buying a robot was much cheaper than hiring a maid, I would definitely get a robot. But hopefully it wouldn’t break my fine china.”

Francis, a 51-year-old sales director who only wants to be known by his first name, said: “The technology must be sufficiently mature and proven before I will allow it in my household. I’m not an early adopter. I wouldn’t want a robot ‘killer’ in my house.”

Alyssa Tham, a 25-year-old executive in the healthcare industry, is already using a robotic vacuum cleaner at home. She admitted feeling more opposed to the idea of robot helpers when she imagined them looking human-like. But at the end of the day, “If the robot is able to wash, dry, iron and fold, why not?” she said.