Elon University

Survey XII 2021

Experts’ Share Insights About Digital Life in the Wake of the COVID Pandemic and About Progress Toward Ethical AI by 2030

Researchers at Elon University and the Pew Internet & Technology Project canvassed  technology innovators, entrepreneurs, analysts, academics and digital professionals, asking them to assess today’s trends and imagine what may evolve. Two 2021 reports analyze more than 900 experts’ responses, illuminating their hopes and identifying some big challenges.

In our 12th canvassing of experts since the early 2000s we asked participants to share their thoughts in answer to two series of questions. The first probed their perspectives on “The New Normal for Digital Life in 2025” – the likely near-future evolution of humans and digital life in the wake of the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. The second set of queries asked for their insights as to “The Future of Ethical AI Design” in the next decade, by 2030. Respondents were asked these research questions in July 2020.

Scroll down the page to find details and links to this research.

Report: “Digital Life in 2025”  – Released February 18, 2021

What is the likely immediate impact of the 2020-21 pandemic on people-plus-tech – what might digital life look like in 2025? This report shares thousands of insightful replies to the following questions:

Think ahead to digital life in 2025. There have been significant debates since the emergence of COVID-19 about its potential impact on global society. Much of the conversation has centered on the transformation of people’s social interactions, their physical and mental health, economic and social divisions, the nature of work and jobs, local, national and global politics, climate change and the globalization of goods and services. Of course, the evolution of people and technology could play a major role across some aspects of the ‘new normal’ in the years to come. What do you envision the ‘new normal’ for digital life will be in 2025? Consider the changes that are being set in motion by the COVID-19 outbreak and the way societies are responding. Do you predict these changes will lead to life in 2025 that is mostly better for most people, mostly worse for most people or not much different for most people than life was at the time the pandemic began? If you expect change, what do you think the “new normal” will be for the average person in 2025? What will have changed most? What will not change much at all? We are particularly interested in what you think will happen to the way people use and think about technology. Please describe what you think the “new normal” will look like with regard to the use of digital technologies in individuals’ personal and professional lives, their daily routines, their well-being, their privacy, their employment and economic security. What hopes do you have for tech-related changes that might make life better in coming years? What worries you about the role of technology and technology companies in individuals’ lives in 2025?

About 47% said they expect that life will be mostly worse for most people in 2025 than when the pandemic began. About 39% said life will be mostly better for most people. About 14% said life in 2025 will not be much different. Threats they cite include inequality and injustice; security risks and privacy’s fall; automation; misinformation, and worsening mental health. Their hopes are for improved social relations and social justice; that tech and government may soon come to more highly value the needs of people and planet over profit and power; and that smarter and fairer human and technological systems will emerge.

Report: ‘The Future of Ethical Artificial Intelligence Design’ – Released June 16, 2021

What progress can we expect by 2030 in working toward advancing ethical AI design? This report shares experts’ insightful replies to the following questions:

[What do you think] about the overall prospects for the application of artificial intelligence ethics by 2030? In recent years, there have been scores of convenings and even more papers generated proposing ethical frameworks for the application of artificial intelligence (AI). They cover a host of issues including transparency, justice and fairness, privacy, freedom and human autonomy, beneficence and non-maleficence, freedom, trust, sustainability and dignity. Our questions here seek your predictions about the possibilities for such efforts. By 2030, will most of the AI systems being used by organizations of all sorts employ ethical principles focused primarily on the public good? Please elaborate on your answer about ethical AI. Will AI mostly be used in ethical or questionable ways in the next decade? Why? What gives you the most hope? What worries you the most? How do you see AI applications making a difference in the lives of most people? As you look at the global competition over AI systems, what issues concern you or excite you? How likely is it that quantum computing will evolve over the next decade to assist?

About 68% said they expect that ethical principles focused primarily on the public good will not be employed in most AI systems by 2030. About 32% said they expect or at least hope that ethical principles focused primarily on the public good will be employed in most AI systems by 2030. Themes among these experts’ concerns about the future of ethical AI design included the difficulty in defining, implementing and enforcing such design; the fact that control of AI is concentrated in the hands of powerful companies and governments driven by motives other than ethical concerns; the reality that AI systems are already quite widespread, abuses are already occurring, and some are not very visible and hard to remedy; and that geopolitical competition, especially between China and the U.S., will matter more to driving the development of AI than any ethical issues.