01 September 2020

Understandings of GMO and AI

'Extreme opponents of genetically modified foods know the least but think they know the most' by Philip M. Fernbach, Nicholas Light, Sydney E. Scott, Yoel Inbar and Paul Rozin in (2019) 3 Nature Human Behaviour 251–256 reports

There is widespread agreement among scientists that genetically modified foods are safe to consume and have the potential to provide substantial benefits to humankind. However, many people still harbour concerns about them or oppose their use. In a nationally representative sample of US adults, we find that as extremity of opposition to and concern about genetically modified foods increases, objective knowledge about science and genetics decreases, but perceived understanding of genetically modified foods increases. Extreme opponents know the least, but think they know the most. Moreover, the relationship between self-assessed and objective knowledge shifts from positive to negative at high levels of opposition. Similar results were obtained in a parallel study with representative samples from the United States, France and Germany, and in a study testing attitudes about a medical application of genetic engineering technology (gene therapy). This pattern did not emerge, however, for attitudes and beliefs about climate change.

The Introduction to the Monash Data Futures Institute AI For Social Good? Australian public attitudes toward AI and society report by Neil Selwyn, Beatriz Gallo Cordoba, Mark Andrejevic and Liz Campbell states 

 Artificial Intelligence is now influencing almost all aspects of society: employment; manufacturing; telecommunications; banking and finance; health services and even our national security. The abundance of research into the legal, ethical and societal implications of AI across industry and government reflects its potential for an enduring, transformative impact. However, the views of the public remain underrepresented. The Monash Data Futures Institute (in partnership with the Faculties of Law, Education and Arts), is proud to present this first major study of Australian’s attitudes to AI. We believe it to be vital to paving the way for more frequent and systematic contributions of public opinion, to the formation of public policy, shaping the future of AI technology in Australia and educating the public about AI’s benefits and risks 

The report’s findings show very strong public support for the establishment of a new regulatory body to address AI development, as well as support for the increased governance and oversight of AI development through legislation and industry guidelines. The most immediate priority arising from our findings is the development of public education efforts to enhance what might be termed ‘public understandings of AI’. Similarly, our findings point to high levels of public trust in CSIRO, university researchers and bodies such as the Office of the Chief Scientist of Australia and Australian Human Rights Commissioner – therefore suggesting the benefits of these organisations playing prominent public-facing roles in any efforts to manage and oversee AI development in the future. 

Perhaps the most immediate priority arising from our findings is the development of public education efforts to enhance what might be termed ‘public understandings of AI’. Indeed, our survey suggests that many people will change their initial opinions and preconceptions about AI when provided with further information, examples and questions. 

This survey was administered as a scoping study rather than an exercise in providing specific recommendations or agendas for further action. Nevertheless, our findings suggest that further dialog amongst policymakers and the broader Australian ‘AI community’ would be of value.

The report notes 

 The past ten years or so have seen artificial intelligence (AI) technologies become a prominent topic of discussion across Australian society. Yet, the ongoing implementation of these technologies remains a highly contested topic. 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. 

Based on a nationally-representative public opinion survey of over 2000 Australian adults, the report examines key areas of public understanding, optimism and concern regarding the societal application of AI technologies. As industry and policy-makers continue to develop, implement and manage AI across most areas of Australian society, this report explores the often-overlooked views of the general public – in many ways, the ultimate ‘end users’ of these powerful technologies. 

Key findings from the survey include:

  • While nearly nine-in-ten people are aware of the term, the majority of the Australian public consider themselves to have little knowledge of ‘artificial intelligence’. Just over one-quarter of respondents described themselves as knowing ‘a fair bit’ or ‘a lot’ about AI. These are most likely to be people with computer science or programming expertise, aged between 18–24 years, and/or from households where a language other than English is spoken. 

  • People’s immediate understandings of AI are varied. The most popular ways in which AI is described reflect ideas of robots ‘taking on work’ and/or ‘taking over the world’. That said, many respondents have more sophisticated understandings – for example, making immediate associations with computers being programmed to perform tasks, learning from data, and displaying human-like thinking. 

  • There are relatively high levels of support from the Australian public for the development of AI. Having completed the survey, around two-thirds of respondents (63.5%) stated that they ‘somewhat support’ or ‘strongly support’ the development of AI. In comparison, only 12% describe themselves as either ‘somewhat’ or ‘strongly’ opposed to AI. 

  • Many people will change their opinions on the basis of receiving more information about AI, and being asked to think through issues relating to AI and society. Specifically, we found 43% of the respondents who initially considered themselves ‘opposed’ to the development of AI to shift subsequently to either a ‘neutral’ or ‘supportive’ stance once having engaged with all the survey questions. 

  • We found consistently high levels of support for the use of AI to address social, humanitarian and environmental challenges. Particularly strong support was expressed for the use of AI to address challenges in areas such as health and medicine, alongside environmental challenges and crisis response. The only area with notably lower levels of support is the use of AI to generate culture for popular consumption (such as films, books, music or art). 

  • The majority of the public agrees with the need for industry guidelines and/or new legislation to address all possible harms associated with AI. We find high levels of support for legislation and industry governance related to banning the use of lethal autonomous weapons, ensuring the safety of autonomous vehicles, and protecting data privacy. 

  • The Australian public has high levels of confidence in CSIRO and university researchers to develop AI in the best interests of the public. The lowest levels of confidence to develop AI in the best interests of the public are expressed for Amazon and Facebook. 

  • In terms of managing the development of AI, high levels of confidence are expressed for CSIRO, as well as independent government bodies such as the Office of The Chief Scientist, and the Australian Human Rights Commissioner. 

  • There is very strong support (87.3% of respondents) for establishing a new regulatory body in Australia to govern and promote responsible innovation in the area of AI. 

  • The Australian public is especially hopeful about the potential benefits of AI in healthcare and medicine for advanced diagnosis, development of medicine and disease treatments. Conversely, the prospect of the increased use of AI in the workplace is seen in mixed terms. The most prevalent fears expressed by our survey respondents relate to AI-based surveillance and loss of privacy, alongside the misuse of AI technology by governments and companies acting with malintent. 

  • Notwithstanding specific concerns, our survey finds the Australian public to be generally optimistic about the impact of AI on their lives and society. The majority of the public (69.4%) agrees that AI will do more ‘social good’ than ‘social harm’. 

  • While not necessarily convinced that such technology will ever exist, most people imagine that AI capable of exceeding human intelligence would have an overall ‘good’ or ‘more or less neutral’ impact on humanity. Only 5.1% of respondents see the possible future development of high-level machine intelligence as ‘extremely bad’ and/or maybe even ‘leading to human extinction’.