Smart Phones will soon Read and Write Better than over 30 Million US Adults

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While progress in improving human literacy rates has stalled since 2000[1] — leaving 758 million[2] adults worldwide and 32 million Americans[3] illiterate– a new report predicts that technological advances will soon enable over 2 billion[4] smartphones to read and write. At the current rate of technological progress, devices and machines powered by AI and voice recognition software will surpass the literacy level of one in seven American adults within the next ten years.

In their report, ‘2027: Human vs. Machine Literacy’ the global campaign Project Literacy and Professor Brendan O’Connor, University of Massachusetts Amherst, call 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. They highlight:

  • Machine literacy already exceeds the literacy abilities of 3% of the US population who are non-literate[5]
  • There are more software engineers[6] in the United States than school teachers[7].  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[8]
  • 32 million American adults can not currently read a road sign.  Yet 10 million self-driving cars are predicted to be on the road by 2020[9].
  • The 2017 U.S. Federal Education Budget for schools is $40.4bn[10]. In 2015, investment in AI reached $47.2 billion and is expected to keep on increasing.[11]

Project Literacy, founded and convened by Pearson, is a campaign backed by more than 90 partners as diverse as UNESCO, Microsoft, Worldreader, the Clinton Foundation, Room to Read, Doctors of the World, the Hunger Project and ProLiteracy.

“‘Machine reading’ is not close to mastering the full nuances of human language and intelligence, despite this idea capturing the imagination of popular culture in movies such as ‘Her’. However advances in technology mean that it is likely ‘machines’ will achieve literacy abilities exceeding those of one in seven Americans within the next decade” said Professor Brendan O’Connor, University of Massachusetts Amherst. “I was interested in exploring this topic as while there has been a lot of discussion around machine learning and machine reading, directly comparing machine literacy with human literacy really highlights the dichotomy between the two.”

“Our new report highlights the gulf between technological and human progression. 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’ said Kate James, Project Literacy spokesperson and Chief Corporate Affairs and Global Marketing Officer at Pearson.

Project Literacy commissioned the report to draw attention to the shocking lack of progress being made in fighting illiteracy as well as shine a spotlight on the potential for technology to help bring about change.  The global movement aim to harness the power of technology to tackle the illiteracy crisis through a range of technology-led partnerships [See Notes to Editors for Case Studies].

The report was launched ahead of Project Literacy’s upcoming presence at SxSW in Austin, where representatives will be on the ground raising awareness of the issue of illiteracy among the tech-savvy festival goers. Project Literacy will be encouraging the public to get involved in the fight against illiteracy through a number of unique experiences including an interactive Spelling Bee and thought-provoking talks. To support the initiative, Pearson will be matching donations from the festival on a 1:1 basis [See Notes to Editors for full details].

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