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By Leonard Klie - Posted Apr 24, 2017
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Despite efforts to improve human literacy, 758 million adults worldwide and 32 million Americans are illiterate, while technological advances will soon enable more than 2 billion smartphones to read and write, according to a report from Project Literacy.

At the current rate of technological progress, devices and machines powered by artificial intelligence and voice recognition software will surpass the literacy level of one in seven American adults within the next 10 years, the research found.

In their report, “2027: Human vs. Machine Literacy,” Project Literacy and Professor Brendan O’Connor of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst call for society to commit to upgrading its people at the same rate as upgrading its technology.

They highlight the following statistics to support their assertions:

• Machine literacy already exceeds the literacy of 3 percent of the U.S. population.

• There are more software engineers in the United States than schoolteachers. We are focusing so much on teaching algorithms and AI to be better at language that we are forgetting that 50 percent of adults cannot read a book written at an eighth-grade level.

• Thirty-two million American adults cannot currently read a road sign. Yet 10 million self-driving cars are predicted to be on the road by 2020.

• The 2017 U.S. federal education budget is $40.4 billion. In 2015, investment in AI reached $47.2 billion.

“Machine reading is not close to mastering the full nuances of human language and intelligence.... 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,” O’Connor said in a statement. “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 2 billion smartphones 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,” Kate James, Project Literacy spokesperson and chief corporate affairs and global marketing officer at Pearson, which founded Project Literacy, said in a statement.

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