Education, not hype: How public perception affects new technology

Public attitudes towards news technologies will be an undeniable factor in progress.
13 September 2019

Richard Yu, head of Huawei’s consumer business, presents a Kirin 990 5G chip set at the IFA. Source: AFP

When we rally round the latest emerging technologies, eager to uncover how they can equip our businesses with a competitive, cutting-edge advancement, public opinion is perhaps the last thing we’re likely to consider. 

But, as we have seen with Facebook’s use of data and the latest reaction to Google’s Toronto ‘smart city’ plans, not considering new technology’s perception and awareness in wider society— or being upfront about what’s going on ‘beneath the hood’— is a pitfall that can tarnish reputations and throw any technological long-game off the rails. 

As car-makers— incumbents and startups— pile money into self-driving vehicle technology, for example, few are addressing the fact that while 60 percent of citizens believe they will eventually outnumber conventional vehicles, 52 percent said they would never consider buying one, according to a UK survey. 

Just 23 percent of people thought driverless vehicles’ ability to obey all traffic rules would improve road safety. 

While autonomous vehicles will allow businesses to do amazing, innovative things for customers (and themselves)— collecting vast amounts of data to provide personalized recommendations, routes and driving styles, for example— success won’t rely on just developing the technology, it will rely on winning the public around. 

On the flip side of this, it’s equally important to explore how wider society views new technology that we— on the other side of the fence— may presume we know public attitudes towards, such as the use of biometric security, automation, or ‘creepy’ marketing personalization techniques. 

‘Fear and excitement’

The importance of customer perception when it comes to next-gen technology is the topic of a new study by London-based Studio Graphene, a design agency for technology companies. 

The survey quizzed 2,000 UK adults about some of the most ‘talked about’ technologies today, including artificial intelligence (AI), internet of things (IoT), big data, wearable tech, biometrics, 5G, driverless cars, and augmented and virtual reality.

“New technologies tend to conjure both fear and excitement among consumers,” said Ritam Gandhi, director and founder of Studio Graphene. “On the one hand, they promise to make our lives easier, cheaper or better; on the other, they could risk our safety, compromise personal data or threaten jobs.”

Enforcing the wider point, the report turned up interesting results; out of the technologies it put to the public, the most excitement was shown around the positive change that could be brought about by biometric security (32 percent), such as retina and fingerprint scanning. 

That’s more than 5G (31 percent), whose capabilities and real-world applications— whether that’s streaming boxing matches in hologram form to your front room or performing remote surgery from the other side of the planet— remain somewhat shrouded in uncertainty as yet, if not (at least, to the uninitiated) farfetched. 

On the other hand, biometric security could present itself as a tangible solution to cybersecurity issues, and the frustration of holding strings of easily-forgotten passwords and having to constantly reset passwords. 

Returning to an earlier example, the survey again found that driverless cars present one of the biggest concerns in the public, with 43 percent worried about problems that may arise from them hitting out streets. That was significantly higher than AI (24 percent), the next “most worrisome” technology.

Meanwhile, bolstering concerns that the concept of the smart city is too often being developed with motivations of deploying ‘tech for tech’s sake’, as opposed to truly benefiting citizens themselves, 37 percent of people hadn’t even heard of IoT, which is arguably the technological building blocks of those imagined cities of tomorrow.

Thirty-five percent, meanwhile, wasn’t familiar with the term ‘big data’.

Education, not hype

Commenting on the research, Gandhi said the findings showed that “despite the hype” around emerging technologies and their supposedly inevitable role in our daily lives, while some technologies are not fully understood, others “still trigger fear”. 

“What’s more, these are hugely significant trends shaping the world around us – like IoT and big data – which consumers do not fully understand,” he said. 

Therefore, more must be done by the businesses creating and using these technologies to educate consumers around what they mean and how they can improve their day-to-day lives, said Gandhi.

“After all, technology ought to be a force for good, but its progress will be restricted if we do not address the confusion and concerns surrounding new digital advances.”

Overcoming that confusion and concern means taking small steps to educate and expose users to new technologies. In Brooklyn, New York, for example, an autonomous driving company called Optimus Ride has launched a free self-driving shuttle service for commuters to help demonstrate how autonomous vehicles can solve “real-world problems in structured environments”.

The trial is taking place on private land, these controlled demonstrations— which will inevitably be shared far and wide on social media— can help steer public acceptance of the technology.

On private land exempt from public road rules and regulations, controlled demonstrations of the technology such as that of Optimus Ride’s could help to steer wider public acceptance, said the group’s CEO, Ryan Chin.

“[…] our system will provide access to and experience with autonomy for thousands of people, helping to increase acceptance and confidence of this new technology, which helps move the overall industry forward.”