Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos recently declared: “We’re at the beginning of a golden age of AI. Recent advancements have already led to invention that previously lived in the realm of science fiction—and we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible.” Unfortunately, most Americans do not share his perspective. According to a recent survey conducted by the Center for Data Innovation, most Americans are not very optimistic about the benefits of artificial intelligence (AI). As countries like China challenge the United States for global leadership in this technology, this lack of public enthusiasm for AI may undercut support for policies that would preserve U.S. dominance in this field. Indeed, public anxiety and fears are the basis of calls for policymakers to limit, delay, and constrain AI. This suggests that the public and private sector should do more to educate the public about the benefits of AI and alleviate their concerns if the United States is to retain its edge in AI.
In our survey, we asked Internet users three questions (see Table 1). First, we asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement: “Technological innovations, like artificial intelligence and robotics, will make the world a better place.” Overall, slightly more agreed than disagreed: 36 percent agreed with the statement, 31 percent disagreed, and 33 percent neither agreed nor disagreed. Second, we asked respondents whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement: “Technological innovations, like artificial intelligence and robotics, will make workers better off in the future.” Overall, slightly more disagreed than agreed: 31 percent agreed, 35 percent disagreed, and 34 percent neither agreed nor disagreed. Finally, we asked respondents whether they agreed or disagreed that “Self-driving cars will lead to safer roads and fewer accidents.” This question showed the lowest level of public support: only 27 percent of respondents agreed, and 43 percent disagreed.
Table 1: U.S. Internet users’ opinions on artificial intelligence and robotics.
Part of the antipathy towards AI is driven by hostility to those making the technology. The past two years has seen the rise of “techlash”—a growing animosity towards Silicon Valley, driven by detractors at organizations like the Open Markets Institute, which advocates for the breakup of large tech companies. Indeed there are many groups—from unions representing taxi drivers and truckers to the American Civils Liberties Union (ACLU)—relentless advocating the idea that technology presents serious risks to society, often using misleading and hyperbolic analysis. With a relentless stream of articles, speeches, and reports—which the media is eager to amplify—about how AI will eliminate jobs, reduce human agency, destroy privacy, increase inequality, and potentially even kill us all, it is no wonder the public is concerned.
Indeed, a sentiment analysis of 87,000 articles published about Facebook from 2006 to 2018, found that positive coverage has steadily declined over time, and since 2016 it has been almost entirely negative. But it is not just media coverage of technology companies that has grown more negative, discussions about technology itself is more negative as well. In a historical analysis of print media, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation found that:
…coverage of technology in the 1980s and early 1990s was largely favorable, with a heavy focus on the economic and military advantages afforded by advancing technologies…However, that tone has gradually shifted over the years, with more articles highlighting the potential ill effects of technology: its displacement of face-to-face interaction, its role in environmental degradation, its threat to employment, and its failure to live up to some of the promises made on its behalf.
This dynamic is playing out today with AI. For example, the Elon Musk-based non-profit research company OpenAI recently made headlines when it claimed it had developed an AI algorithm that was too dangerous to release. While most of the AI community scoffed at these dubious claims, they still made headlines and reinforced the narrative of AI as an unsafe, out-of-control technology.
These trends suggest that much of the United States is in the grip of a “techno-panic” about AI—a tide of fear about the impact of new technologies on society. Some might be inclined to dismiss these concerns as normal reactions to new technology. But it is important to note that negative public perceptions about AI are not universal—views vary by country. For example, a 2018 survey by Ford Motor Company found that 50 percent of U.S. adults agreed with the statement “I think artificial intelligence will do more harm than good” compared to 28 percent in China. Similarly, only 50 percent of U.S. adults agreed with the statement “I am hopeful about the future of autonomous vehicles” compared to 83 percent in China.
One cure for techno-panics is time. Over time, the benefits of a new technology become apparent, and fears are disproven as people become more familiar with technologies. Unfortunately, simply waiting out this techno-panic may give China an opportunity to successfully challenge U.S. dominance in AI. Therefore, it is important that both government and industry do more in the short term to combat misinformation about AI, such as being clear about what it can and cannot do, showing the safeguards they are using to prevent harm, and educating the public about the benefits. In particular, increased government adoption of AI could demonstrate these benefits and alleviate public concerns.
Image credit: Heisenberg Media