Survey suggests 84% of Americans are illiterate about AI — so here’s a quiz to test your own AI IQ

·3 min read
Two researchers argue that being literate about the basics of artificial intelligence in the 21st century is becoming as essential as being familiar with reading, writing and arithmetic. (AI2 Illustration)
Two researchers argue that being literate about the basics of artificial intelligence in the 21st century is becoming as essential as being familiar with reading, writing and arithmetic. (AI2 Illustration)

Can artificial intelligence write its own programs? Is there AI in your TV remote control? Researchers at Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence say that knowing the right answers to such questions is an essential part of being literate in our tech-driven society — and that most of us would get a failing grade.

A national survey, involving 1,547 adult Americans who were given a 20-question quiz about AI’s capabilities, found that only 16% of the test takers scored a passing grade of better than 60% on the quiz.

“The majority of Americans are AI illiterate,” Nicole DeCario and Oren Etzioni report today in a posting to PNW.ai, an information service provided by the institute, also known as AI2. Etzioni is AI2’s CEO, while DeCario leads AI2’s special projects team.

What’s your AI IQ? Take AI2’s literacy quiz

The researchers acknowledge that the extent of AI illiteracy shouldn’t be surprising. “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,” they write.

However, they argue that a basic understanding of how artificial intelligence works is “critical for informing everyday decisions, adopting appropriate economic policies and maintaining national security.”

This doesn’t mean everybody has to be a coder. Rather, basic literacy efforts should familiarize people with what AI tools can do, and what they can’t do. DeCario and Etzioni compare the need for AI literacy standards in the 21st century to the need for the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic in the 19th century.

“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,” they write.

So what’s the prescription? DeCario and Etzioni recommend adding the basic principles of AI and digital ethics to school curricula, beginning in middle school and building up to high-school coursework. As an example, they point to Colby College’s $30 million initiative to establish a cross-disciplinary institute focusing on AI.

“We need a systematic way to distribute information at scale,” the researchers write. “To that end, we ask that the Biden administration 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.”

The AI2 duo acknowledge that a lot of questions would need to be addressed. For example, who’d create the standard, and who’d update it to reflect fast-moving progress in the AI field? How do you ensure that people have equal access to information, and an equal voice in the resulting debates?

So here’s a 21st question for the quiz: Could AI help us get a better handle on AI?

Update for 6 p.m. PT Dec. 8: In response to my inquiry, DeCario provided additional perspective on the question of AI curriculum:

“Because education is primarily a state and local responsibility, there is no national standard. So yes, some people are learning about AI in the classroom and others are not. Also, mentioning AI in a classroom vs. learning fundamentals is an important distinction. Computer science courses are generally elective, so adding it to that curriculum alone will not have broad enough reach. Math, science, and social studies all naturally intersect, and each subject can be a home for AI courses. Teaching resources on AI exist for each of these areas.”

AI2’s survey was conducted online in partnership with Echelon Insights from July 13 to 15. The survey sample reflected population targets from the American Community Survey for gender, age, race/ethnicity, education and region.

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