Artificial Intelligence

Smartphones Are Gaining on Humans in Literacy

Does it matter if more smartphones than people will be able to read and write within the next 10 years? A new push to promote human literacy believes it does. Project Literacy, begun by Pearson and supported by 95 other organizations, including UNESCO, the Clinton Foundation and the Hunger Project, aims to eliminate illiteracy by 2030.

As these organizations have explained, raising literacy rates also raises living standards. "Illiterate people are more likely to be poor, lack education, miss out on opportunities to participate fully in society and the workforce," Project Literacy stated on its website. "Sadly, their choices in life are far too limited."

Currently, 758 million adults around the world and 32 million Americans are illiterate, according to a new report issued by the project, "2027: Human vs. Machine Literacy." These are individuals who are unable to read "a road sign, a voting form or a medicine label."

At the same time, technological advances in artificial intelligence and voice recognition will soon enable more than two billion smartphones to read and write. Natural language processing capabilities will "begin to outpace the reading skills of millions of people," asserted the authors.

Already, machine literacy exceeds the literacy abilities of 3 percent of the U.S. population. A comparison of the global developer population found that the United States will have far more software engineers next year (4.5 million, according to Evans Data) than school teachers (3.6 million, according to the National Center for Education Statistics). Similarly, while investment in AI had reached $47.2 billion by 2015 and was expected to continue growing, the U.S. federal budget for education is only $40 billion in 2017. The bottom line: More people and more dollars will be focused on literacy for machines than for humans.

The report, primarily written by Brendan O'Connor, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, makes a case for every country to "upgrade" its people "in the same way that we upgrade our technology, in order to break the vicious cycle of illiteracy." While we see improvements in each new generation of smartphone, he wrote, illiterate parents tend to beget illiterate children, "perpetuating a devastating cycle."

While the world saw literacy rates improve by 12 percent between the years 1990 and 2000, that growth has stalled, slowing to just 1 percent between 2000 and 2015. It's a crisis considered more important to address in developing countries than developed ones. For example, another Project Literacy report pointed out, "People in India are five times more likely to take action than people in the UK."

Ironically, as the pace of computing literacy looks as if it could surpass humans' ability to read, the report explained, technology can play a role in advancing human literacy. Several Project Literacy partners have used technology in their literacy work. For example, not-for-profit Worldreader uses mobile technology to help parents in 52 countries read more to their children. And Unreasonable Group is developing what it claims to be the world's first accelerator program for supporting start-ups in emerging economies that work to help close the global illiteracy gap.

"Rapid advances in machine reading technology serve as a surprising comparison point to the prevalence of non-literacy and below-basic literacy levels among people," the report concluded. "We often speak of investing in technology to enhance artificial intelligence — but through better education, we can invest in humans to enhance our intelligence, and strive to achieve literacy for all people."

"It doesn't have to be a zero-sum game," added Kate James, Project Literacy spokesperson and chief corporate affairs and global marketing officer at Pearson, in a statement. "Technology has a crucial role to play in the fight against illiteracy."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.