Machines Will Be More Literate Than Many Humans in 10 Years

A global campaign has dedicated itself to bringing awareness that machines are getting more literate, while human literacy rates remain stagnant.

Chris Wiltz

March 20, 2017

4 Min Read
Machines Will Be More Literate Than Many Humans in 10 Years

Are Siri, Cortana, and Alexa going to be more literate than humans?

Anyone excited about the recent advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning should also be concerned about human literacy as well. That's according to Protect Literacy, a global campaign, backed by education company Pearson, aimed at creating awareness and fighting against illiteracy.

Project Literacy, which has been raising awareness for its cause at SXSW 2017, recently released a report, “2027: Human vs. Machine Literacy,” that projects machines powered by AI and voice recognition will surpass the literacy levels of one in seven American adults in the next 10 years. “While these systems currently have a much shallower understanding of language than people do, they can already perform tasks similar to [a] simple text search task...exceeding the abilities of millions of people who are nonliterate,” Kate James, Project Literacy spokesperson and Chief Corporate Affairs and Global Marketing Officer at Pearson, wrote in the report. In light of this the organization is calling for “society to commit to upgrading its people at the same rate as upgrading its technology, so that by 2030 no child is born at risk of poor literacy.”

Compiling a variety of studies and reports, Project Literacy has highlighted some key findings:

According to the National National Centre for Education Statistics machine literacy has already exceeded the literacy abilities of the estimated 3% of non-literate adults in the US.

Comparing demographic data from the Global Developer Population and Demographic Study 2016 v2 and the 2015 Digest of Education Statistics finds there are more software engineers in the U.S. than school teachers, “We are focusing so much on teaching algorithms and AI to be better at language that we are forgetting that 50% of adults cannot read a book written at an eighth grade level,” Project Literacy said in a statement.

Research done by Business Insider reveals that 32 million Americans cannot currently read a road sign. Yet at the same time there are 10 million self-driving cars predicted to be on the roads by 2020. (One could argue this will further eliminate the need for literacy, but that is debatable.)

Citing research from Venture Scanner, Project Literacy found that in 2015 investment in AI technologies, including natural language processing, speech recognition, and image recognition, reached $47.2 billion. Meanwhile, data on US government spending shows that the 2017 U.S. Federal Education Budget for schools (pre-primary through secondary school) is $40.4 billion.

"Human literacy levels have stalled since 2000. At any time, this would be a cause for concern, when one in ten people worldwide...still cannot read a road sign, a voting form, or a medicine label,” James wrote in the report. “In popular discussion about advances in artificial intelligence, it is easy to be drawn into comparing computers against the, say, the very best chess or Go players that humanity has to offer. But human intelligence and information processing skills – such as reading and writing – are very unevenly distributed, and it is worth paying attention to the needs of millions of people whose abilities are weaker than average.”

In hopes of raising global literacy levels, Project Literacy is launching several case studies around leveraging technology, particularly mobile technology, to combat illiteracy. Project Literacy is partnering with a non-profit organization, Worldreader, on a India-based project called Read to Kids that will target a mobile app at low-income parents with children 6-years-old and younger to deliver content to engage children and their parents.


The organization is also working with the Clinton Foundation to create pilot projects to build evidence that mobile technology can be effective in building pre-literacy skills in children ages 0 to 5. And they are also partnering with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on a joint research project to help understand how to leverage innovations in mobile and other information and communications technologies to promote literacy.

"Our new report highlights the gulf between technological and human progression,” James wrote. “It is predicted that more than two billion smart phones will soon be capable of reading and writing, but 758 million people in the world still lack basic literacy skills and this skills gap is being passed on from generation to generation. It doesn't have to be a zero-sum game – technology has a crucial role to play in the fight against illiteracy.”

Chris Wiltz is the Managing Editor of Design News.  

[Main image source: Pixabay]

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