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    America Needs AI Literacy Now

    • Nicole DeCario
    • Oren Etzioni

    Can artificial intelligence (AI) replace a doctor in the operating room? Are some AI algorithms inherently biased, or are they merely trained on biased data? If you’re not sure about the answers to these questions, you are not alone. We recently conducted a national survey with Echelon Insights of 1,547 US adults, including a twenty-question ‘True/False/Don’t Know’ quiz, and found that most Americans are remarkably ill-informed about AI. Only 16% of participants “passed” the test (scoring above 60%) indicating that the majority of Americans are AI illiterate.

    Perhaps AI illiteracy shouldn’t surprise us. AI is not part of our schools’ curricula, and the main source of information about it today, according to our survey, is YouTube and social media. Yet AI is transforming the world around us at an alarming pace; AI literacy (a basic understanding of what it can do and what it cannot do) is critical for informing everyday decisions, adopting appropriate economic policies, and maintaining our national security. We are not advocating that everyone become adept at creating AI software, but rather that people should clearly understand AI’s capabilities, limitations, and trajectory and how it affects their daily lives.

    Previous studies have focused on attitudes and sentiments about AI; our survey is the first of its kind to focus on concrete AI knowledge. Our survey revealed that some concepts are well understood. For example, 78% of participants know that smart speakers, like Alexa, use AI technology, and 73% know that AI learns by consuming large amounts of data. Other fundamentals are missed. 70% of participants believe AI is a single program that can perform a broad range of tasks, like autocompleting sentences as well as controlling robots. In fact, unlike people, AI programs are savants—they are able to perform only narrow, well-specified tasks, and only after extensive training.

    Reading, writing, and arithmetic have been the canonical pillars of education since the 1800s. Standards and requirements for these subjects shortly followed their introduction. While curriculum has certainly evolved and other subjects, like science, became part of curriculum, it took nearly 200 years for STEM to be formally introduced in 2001 as a priority. The challenges, even today, with STEM are significant. Among other things, teacher training falls short of preparing educators to teach these subjects, sufficient curriculum is not readily available, and STEM remains deprioritized in schools. On top of this rocky foundation, we find ourselves in desperate need of infusing tech literacy into our children’s education. To compete in this digital world, we must educate them on computer power, potential, and limitations while encouraging an intentional focus on ethics to ensure continued tech advancement is grounded in values we hold dear. Digital literacy is taught in schools to varying degrees, and extracurricular courses, like code.org and Coursera, teach programming, and even include AI modules, to help bolster the ranks of software engineers. Yet, the crying need for AI literacy remains.

    AI content is abundant. If you search “What is artificial intelligence?” on YouTube, you could scroll for hours through content on AI and jobs, ethics, basics, future, and much more. The challenge, and the inspiration for the survey we conducted, is this: AI has a PR problem. In this age of “everyone is a content creator,” how do we vet content? How is information distributed? What are the important areas of AI on which to focus? Adding AI content, including the basics as well as ethics, to school curricula seems an obvious choice—beginning in middle school with basic concepts and simple demos followed by a high school focus on analyzing AI capabilities and interaction with more advanced demos and prototypes. Earlier this year, the liberal arts school Colby College announced the launch of a new AI Institute focused on, among other things, allowing for AI to become part of the curriculum in nearly all disciplines. There are clear opportunities, albeit riddled with hurdles, for reaching people in organized educational settings; what is more challenging is how to reach everyone else. AI content is drowning in the noise of information coming at us by the second, and this essential knowledge has not been prioritized. But ignorance is no longer optional. We need a systematic way to distribute information at scale. To that end, we ask that the Biden Administration to include the development of an AI Literacy standard as part of the National AI Initiative within the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. We also call on companies big and small to better educate their employees and consumers about the true capabilities and limits of AI.

    Of course, there remains a lot to figure out. For example, who creates the “gold standard” curricula? How is information in this fast-moving field updated regularly? How do we ensure equal access? How do we train people to teach this content? How does AI literacy intersect with data literacy and computer literacy? While we certainly don’t have all of the answers, we do hope to inspire conversation and prioritize attention to this need.

    Summary of Questions/Responses from the AI Literacy Quiz. Conducted with Echelon Insights, July 13-15, 2021.


    • Nicole DeCario
      Allen Institute for AI (AI2)
      Nicole DeCario leads Special Projects in service of AI2's mission to create AI for the Common Good.
    • Oren Etzioni
      Allen Institute for AI (AI2)
      Dr. Oren Etzioni is Chief Executive Officer at AI2. He is Professor Emeritus, University of Washington as of October 2020 and a Venture Partner at the Madrona Venture Group since 2000. His awards include AAAI Fellow and Seattle’s Geek of the Year. He has founded several companies including Farecast (acquired by Microsoft). He has written over 200 technical papers, as well as commentary on AI for The New York Times, Wired, and Nature. He helped to pioneer meta-search, online comparison shopping, machine reading, and Open Information Extraction.