Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Pandemic effect: How do consumers feel about AI right now?

A broadening case for major shifts underway in how customers perceive automation technologies.

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Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

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Consumer-facing AI and robotics applications have had an uphill battle, and they've had to wage it on two fronts. Regulation has, perhaps for the better, throttled adoption of technologies like self-driving cars and delivery robots, turning developers into lobbyists. 

At the same time, automation firms have had to win over wary consumers. It's hard in any normal environment to convince a preponderance of customers that ditching human customer service representatives, drivers, and cashiers for automated helpers is in everyone's best interest.

But we're not in a normal environment. In a recent survey of 1,000 adult consumers across the U.S. by AI firm Interactions, LLC, results suggest the pandemic has altered how people feel about AI in a variety of categories, from customer service and self-driving vehicles to healthcare and privacy.

"As the coronavirus continues to have a radical impact on business and society, it's ushered in a fresh urgency for technological progress," says Jim Freeze, CMO of Interactions. "It's well understood that AI can play a powerful role in operations. At the same time, it's crucial that consumer comfort is kept front and center as organizations navigate the new normal. As part of Interactions' ongoing effort to understand the impact of AI on the world around us, we sought to determine whether today's unprecedented circumstances have shifted consumer comfort with the technology."

Explanations paralleling the customer experience with AI adoption probably wouldn't have flown in a pre-COVID world, at least not without some serious raised eyebrows and pushback. But with social distancing orders in place, many people have grown wary of human-to-human contact. At the same time, call centers and other businesses have been overwhelmed, leading to long wait times to speak to a human representative. That seems to be leading to some warming of the idea of AI, at least by a sizable portion of consumers.

On that call center use case, for example, the survey found that consumers are about split on whether they'd prefer to wait and speak to a human or allow an AI-powered system to respond to their inquiry. However, earlier reports about automation in customer service have found the preference for humans as high as 87%. That's an incredible turnaround in short order.

When it comes to robotics, consumer opinion is positive. The survey found that 73 % of respondents will still place an order online if they know a robot will deliver it instead of a human. Interestingly, however, the holdouts had strong opinions to the contrary, with 25% of respondents saying they will refrain from ordering items online if they know a robot will deliver instead of a human.

However, on the matter of riding in a self-driving vehicle, 55% of respondents say their feelings have not changed. That could foretell a rocky rollout of self-driving vehicles from ridesharing services like Uber.

One area consumers have changed their opinions, which makes sense for anyone who's felt the pang of guilt and remorse for front line grocery store workers, concerns shopping for food. The majority of respondents report that their comfort with the idea of robots in grocery stores has changed in the coronavirus era. Within that group, the number of people more comfortable far exceeded the number that are less comfortable (33% compared to 24%).

On the issue of privacy, 31% of respondents say they are more willing to share their data compared to 22% who are less willing. Some 47% of respondents say the coronavirus has not impacted their willingness to share anonymized personal information, with about half that group expressing continuing comfort sharing anonymized data via AI and half not.

All of this points to a significant change in consumer behavior brought on by the virus, and that should have an impact on AI and automation adoption in the near term.