What Role for Higher Ed in an AI World?

Contrary to popular belief, most Americans feel optimistic about the impending artificial intelligence revolution, even though they think it will take more jobs than it will create.

January 31, 2018
 

Americans don’t fear artificial intelligence as much as is commonly believed, a new study by Gallup and Northeastern University has found. Officials at Northeastern say that it shows higher education should be more involved in training people for the artificial intelligence world.

In a survey of 3,297 adults, about three-quarters said artificial intelligence has and will continue to have a fundamental, but also positive, effect on their lives. Among blue-collar workers, that number dipped to 68 percent.

But nearly three-quarters of participants (and 82 percent of blue-collar workers) admitted the revolution will take more jobs than it creates. This belief varies by industry: 90 percent of workers in manufacturing or production said artificial intelligence would cause jobs to decrease overall, compared to 83 percent of clerical or office workers; 80 percent of adults in the service industry; 79 percent in finance, insurance, real estate or consulting; 76 percent in sales; 71 percent in health care; 71 percent of managers or executives; 70 percent in architecture or engineering; 69 percent in community, social and legal services; and 61 percent in education and training and life, physical and social sciences.

While most Americans do not fear artificial intelligence, they are concerned about finding the skills they need to stay relevant in this new economic environment. Among college graduates, 22 percent said their degree provided skills necessary to work alongside artificial intelligence.

While Americans think artificial intelligence will take some jobs, most don’t think it’ll be their own. Less than a quarter of American workers are “somewhat worried” or “very worried” they will lose their jobs to new technology. But that concern changes according to industry: 28 percent of blue-collar workers are worried about their own jobs, compared to 14 percent of white-collar employees.

A little more than half of both blue- and white-collar American workers think they’ll need more education to find a similar job if they lose theirs to new technology. However, only 18 percent of employed Americans feel “extremely confident” about securing this additional education.

To Joseph Aoun, president of Northeastern University, colleges need to adapt to the impending artificial intelligence revolution. This means institutions must teach humans to become “robot-proof” (as the title of Aoun's book suggests) or in other words, “to do the jobs only humans can do.”

“Universities with the audacity to change represent humanity’s best chance to win the jobs of the future,” Aoun wrote.

Many Americans think employers should shoulder some responsibility in the artificial intelligence revolution. Nearly half of employed Americans (49 percent) said that if they were made redundant due to artificial intelligence, they would search for a new employer that would train them to do a similar job. And 61 percent of adults said employers should pay for Americans’ retraining programs, of a list of seven options. Exactly half said this responsibility should fall on the federal government. Meanwhile, only 14 percent of respondents said universities should pay for these programs.

One aspect of artificial intelligence has sparked significant concern: self-driving cars. Only one-quarter of Americans said they were likely to use a self-driving car, while 23 percent said they’d feel comfortable riding in one. Even fewer adults -- 20 percent -- said they would feel comfortable driving near a self-driving truck. It’s clear many Americans have doubts about the safety of artificial intelligence.

A majority of adults supported additional government oversight to manage the impending technological revolution. Seventy percent of Americans said the U.S. government should enforce stricter regulations on companies that use artificial intelligence.

While many adults supported additional oversight, far fewer believed the government should fund research and development of new technologies. Forty-one percent of adults living in urban areas backed such funding, while only 23 percent of rural Americans agreed.

A government basic income program, to support adults whose jobs were replaced by technology, drew mixed reactions from responders. Of the adults surveyed, 48 percent were in favor of such a program while 52 percent were opposed. A person’s partisan leaning had a significant influence on their response: 65 percent of Democrats backed this income program, while 28 percent of Republicans did not.

While artificial intelligence is largely discussed in hypothetical terms, the “revolution” has already begun. And a majority of adults (79 percent) said that so far, new technology was having a positive impact on their lives. Among college graduates, that number jumped to 89 percent.

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