Most Americans don’t understand AI, according to a new survey.

What’s new: Only 16 percent of adults in the United States got a passing grade on a true-or-false questionnaire of AI’s capabilities and uses. The survey was created by the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence and administered by Echelon Insights.

Conceptions and misconceptions: The study queried 1,547 participants. Correct answers to 12 of the 20 questions earned a passing grade.

  • What they knew: Substantial majorities of respondents understood that AI learns from large quantities of data, smart speakers use AI, a smartphone’s face recognition capability is based on AI, and banks use AI to detect fraud. Around half knew that an AI system can outplay top chess experts, can identify common objects in photos as well as an adult human, and can’t drive a car as well as a human driver.
  • What they didn’t know: Responses divided nearly evenly between “true,” “false,” and “don’t know” over whether AI can think for itself or detect emotions in photos and conversations at the level of a human adult — capabilities well out of reach of current systems. 79 percent of respondents incorrectly believed that AI can write basic software programs by itself, and 64 percent wrongly thought that AI can transcribe conversations as well as a human adult. 43 percent believed the false statement that AI can understand cause and effect, while 32 percent didn’t know.

Behind the news: Despite the United States’ dominant role in AI research and products, the U.S. lags other nations in teaching tech literacy.

  • In 2019, India’s national board of education announced that students at 883 schools across the country had added AI to their curriculum for students beginning in eighth grade.
  • In 2018,China’s Ministry of Education began to provide AI lessons and textbooks to primary and secondary students.
  • Australia encourages teachers to teach about AI.

Why it matters: While U.S. adults misunderstand AI, most of them apparently recognize the high stakes involved. A different study found that 57 percent of Americans believe that AI has potential to cause harm due to misuse in the next decade. It will take informed citizens to ensure that AI benefits people broadly worldwide.

We’re thinking: To be fair, even Andrew wasn’t sure of the answers to some of the questions. Can AI analyze chest X-rays with equal or better accuracy than a radiologist? Andrew contributed to research describing a system that performed comparably to humans on this task, so perhaps the correct answer is “true.” But even AI systems that beat humans in a research lab often lack the robustness to beat humans outside the lab, so maybe it’s “false.” That left him inclined toward “don’t know.”


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