You and AI: the importance of public dialogue

AI Week has been creating spaces for the tech sector to debate how UK organisations and society to take advantage of the opportunities offered by AI. But what do the public think about how, where, and why we should be using AI?

Continued public confidence in the systems that deploy machine learning is one of the factors that will be central to the success of AI technologies, and to realising the benefits that they promise across sectors and applications.

Extensive public dialogues carried out by The Royal Society in 2016 and 2017 show that awareness of AI technologies is low – only 9% of those surveyed had heard the term ‘machine learning’, and only 3% felt that they knew a great deal or fair amount about it. However, awareness of their applications is higher: 76% of respondents had heard of computers that can recognise speech and answer questions – this was the most frequently-recognised application.

These dialogues also showed that attitudes to machine learning itself were largely neutral. Members of the public who took part in these dialogues were more interested in:

  • Why is the technology being used?
  • Who would benefit from its use?
  • How necessary is it to use machine learning (compared to other methods)?

They saw the most to be gained where machine learning could be used to augment human abilities, or do things humans cannot, for example providing advanced analysis.

At their core, these dialogue exercises showed that the public do not have a single view on machine learning. Attitudes towards this technology – whether positive or negative – depend on the circumstances or application in which it is being used.

As AI technologies are put to use in a growing range of contexts or applications, continuing engagement between researchers, policymakers, and the public will be important in helping to create an environment of careful stewardship, and to ensure that the benefits of AI are shared across society.

So, building on the work starting in our Machine Learning project, The Royal Society will be creating further spaces for public dialogue about AI, with the aim of supporting a well-founded public debate about how AI will affect our lives.

For example, we recently announced our You and AI series – a landmark programme of public events, which will create opportunities for leading scientists and entrepreneurs to talk with the public about the frontiers of AI, and its implications for society. We’ll be launching on 30 April, with Demis Hassabis from DeepMind discussing the development and future of AI, then on 3 May experts from Microsoft, Apple, and the Universities of Oxford and Bristol will be exploring the application of AI across sectors.

These events are the start of a broader programme, which will take place throughout 2018. If you would like further information, check out our website.

To read more from techUK AI Week, visit our landing page.

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