Research explores Australian public attitudes towards AI

Thursday, 03 September, 2020

Research explores Australian public attitudes towards AI

A national survey from Monash University, commissioned by the Monash Data Futures Institute, has found that Australians are relatively positive about the growing use of artificial intelligence (AI) in society, but concerns remain around privacy and threats to jobs. The report showed that Australians’ understandings of AI are varied — from robots ‘taking over the world’ to computers being programmed to perform tasks in a positive fashion. The report is based on analysis of data generated by a nationally representative survey of more than 2000 Australians.

The report shows that while nearly 90% of Australians were aware of the term, only a quarter of respondents said they knew ‘a fair bit’ or ‘a lot’ about AI. 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, two-thirds of respondents said they ‘somewhat supported’ or ‘strongly supported’ the development of AI, compared to 12% who said they were opposed to any AI advancements in Australia.

Despite Australia’s high level of optimism about AI in comparison to other countries, such as the US, lead investigator Professor Neil Selwyn said 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.

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 Australian Government’s Artificial Intelligence Roadmap, published in 2019, says AI could be worth $22.17 trillion to the global economy by 2030. The survey showed that respondents support regulation to control the development of technology like autonomous vehicles and lethal autonomous weapons.

“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,” Profession Selwyn said.

The report also found that 69.4% of Australians believe AI will do more ‘social good’ than ‘social harm’, with high levels of support for the use of AI to address social, humanitarian and environmental challenges, especially in health and medicine. Australians also had the lowest level of confidence in Amazon and Facebook to develop AI in the best interests of the public. There is also strong support (87.3%) for establishing a regulatory body in Australia to govern and promote innovation in AI.

The report also showed that 41% of people from the US somewhat or strongly support the development of AI, compared to 63% of Australians. Nearly half of Australians support high-level machine intelligence, compared to 31% of Americans. Professor Joanna Batstone, Director at Monash Data Futures Institute, noted that artificial intelligence technologies have become a prominent topic of discussion in Australian society over the past 10 years.

“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 Batstone said.

Professor Geoff Webb, Research Director at Monash Data Futures Institute, acknowledged the potential of AI technologies to support social and economic advancement, but noted that they can be used without regard or benefit for the greater good. Professor Webb called for the public to understand the positive and negative potentials of AI technology, with well-informed and regulated frameworks needed for its use.

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