Wednesday, 02 September 2020 09:59

Australians ‘positive’ about role of AI but doubts remain on privacy, threats to jobs


Australians are relatively positive about the growing use of artificial intelligence (AI) in society, but concerns remain around privacy and threats to jobs , according to a new national survey by Monash University, which also reveals that understandings of AI are varied – from robots “taking over the world” to computers being programmed to perform tasks in a positive fashion.

Commissioned and published by the Monash Data Futures Institute, the survey reveals that while nearly 90% of Australians were aware of the term AI, just one-quarter of respondents said they knew ‘a fair bit’ or ‘a lot’ about AI - and these are most likely to be people with computer science or programming expertise, and/or from households where a language other than English is spoken.

Despite this, around two-thirds of respondents said they ‘somewhat supported’ or ‘strongly supported’ the development of AI, compared to only 12% who said they were opposed to any AI advancements in Australia.

The report is based on an analysis of data generated by a nationally-representative survey of more than 2000 Australian adults, and Monash notes that the findings come at a time when government analysts warn Australia is “behind the international curve when it comes to building an AI industry that will require about 161,000 specialised workers by 2030”.

The Artificial Intelligence Roadmap, published by the Australian Government in 2019 and co-developed by CSIRO’s Data61 and the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, says AI could be worth $22.17 trillion to the global economy by 2030.

Monash notes that while the latest research finds Australians have high levels of optimism about AI in comparison to countries, such as the US, lead investigator Professor Neil Selwyn from Monash University’s Faculty of Education, says a greater public understanding of AI is needed.

“Most Australians have moved on from seeing AI as something in movies such as Terminator. But people still tend to imagine powerful forms of AI – overlooking the more mundane instances of AI that are already all around us,” Professor Selwyn said.

“Our survey showed people supported regulation to control the development of technology like autonomous vehicles and lethal autonomous weapons. But perhaps the most important issues to be worried about at the moment are more everyday things like internet search engines and fake news.

“AI is something that we are all going to have to make big decisions about during the decade. Australia would definitely benefit from our IT industry, research communities and governments getting together to support public education around the issues raised by the technology.”

Monash lists other key findings from the report including:

  • The majority of Australians believe AI will do more ‘social good’ than ‘social harm’ (69.4%).
  • Australians had the lowest level of confidence in Amazon and Facebook to develop AI in the best interests of the public.
  • High levels of support for the use of AI to address social, humanitarian and environmental challenges, especially in the areas of health and medicine.
  • There is very strong support (87.3%) for establishing a new regulatory body in Australia to govern and promote responsible innovation in AI.
  • Just more than 5% of respondents said the development of high-level machine intelligence would lead to human extinction.

The survey also finds that Australians view AI more favourably compared to their American counterparts.

Just 41% of people from the USA somewhat or strongly support the development of AI, compared to 63% of Australians, and nearly half of Australians support high-level machine intelligence, compared to just 31% of Americans.

Professor Joanna Batstone, Director at Monash Data Futures Institute says “the past 10 years or so have seen artificial intelligence (AI) technologies become a prominent topic of discussion across Australian society.

“This Monash Data Futures Institute report presents one of the first comprehensive pictures of Australian public understandings, attitudes and opinions relating to AI and society and reveals high levels of support for the use of AI to address social, humanitarian and environmental challenges.”

Professor Geoff Webb, Research Director at Monash Data Futures Institute, said AI technologies have great potential to support social and economic advancement, but “all too often, they’re used without regard or benefit for the greater good”.

“It is critical that the public understand both the positive and negative potentials of AI technology, and that there are well-informed and regulated frameworks in place for their use,” Professor Webb said.

The Monash research team for the project and national survey comprises Professor Neil Selwyn (Faculty of Education), Dr Beatriz Gallo Cordoba (Monash Education Futures), Professor Mark Andrejevic (School of Media, Film and Journalism), and Professor Liz Campbell (Faculty of Law).

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Peter Dinham

Peter Dinham - retired and is a "volunteer" writer for iTWire. He is a veteran journalist and corporate communications consultant. He has worked as a journalist in all forms of media – newspapers/magazines, radio, television, press agency and now, online – including with the Canberra Times, The Examiner (Tasmania), the ABC and AAP-Reuters. As a freelance journalist he also had articles published in Australian and overseas magazines. He worked in the corporate communications/public relations sector, in-house with an airline, and as a senior executive in Australia of the world’s largest communications consultancy, Burson-Marsteller. He also ran his own communications consultancy and was a co-founder in Australia of the global photographic agency, the Image Bank (now Getty Images).

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