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60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll: Artificial Intelligence

Fear not! The robots won't take over. Most Americans seem more afraid of the intelligence of their fellow humans than that of robots in this month's poll

Welcome to the 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair Poll for April 2016. This month's poll probes the world of artificial intelligence, a term said to be first used by pioneering Stanford professor John McCarthy more than 60 years ago. He described it as "the science and engineering of making intelligent machines."

From those humble beginnings, machines, computers and robots have made extraordinary advances in their applications and capabilities. Whoever thought that IBM would build a computer that could defeat two of the best Jeopardy players in history? The commercial and military uses for A.I. are vast, but what about the ethics of building "smart" machines that are costing millions of people their jobs and livelihoods and could make many more obsolete in the future?

Some say it will ultimately create an economic bounty by relieving people of having to do menial or repetitive jobs and free them up to create new ideas and opportunities. Others point a cautionary finger at the most successful newer companies like Google, Facebook and Apple and how few people they employ relative to their out-sized financial success. Many Americans are unquestionably anxious about their financial future and security. Wages are stagnant and people without college degrees feel especially vulnerable about their future prospects. Dynamism and change are both exciting and scary, new advances in technology are destroying and creating jobs at a rapid pace, how do you feel about the quest to advance the field of artificial intelligence? We look forward to your answer to this and many other questions, and now the results...

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More than half (53 percent) of Americans feel that our quest to advance the field of artificial intelligence is important. One out of five say it is unnecessary, 15 percent feel it is dangerous and four percent think it will make God angry.

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Forty-four percent think that the field of medicine will benefit the most from advances in artificial intelligence followed by military science 23 percent, automobile manufacturing 13 percent, hacking seven percent, psychiatry three percent and filmmaking three percent. Think of the possibilities and improvements that A.I. could bring to the world. Breakthroughs in medical diagnostics and treatments, robots saving lives on the battlefield, safer cars, less hacking and the big one we thought we'd never see, better movies.

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A third of Americans would feel most comfortable delegating decisions about their retirement planning to a computer with A.I., 27 percent said picking their kids' school, 23 percent said none of the above, eight percent chose end of life care and only four percent would let a computer pick their romantic partner. Computers already create complex financial algorithms for retirement planning, and help people pick schools and life partners with the help of statistical analysis but when it comes to decisions concerning end of life care, this may be the right place for humanity to draw a line.

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If they had their own robot, a majority of Americans (53 percent) would use it for doing day-to-day chores, 21 percent chose problem solving, 17 percent said protection and four percent picked companionship. More women (59 percent) than men (48 percent) chose chores but who couldn't use a little extra help around the house? And more men (26 percent) than women (17 percent) would use it for problem solving, but before you scoff at using robots or computers for companionship, check out the movie "Her" by Spike Jonze.

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From the list provided, 28 percent of Americans think that a "self-aware" computer would think most about the meaning of life, 27 percent said they would think about how overworked they are, 22 percent thought they would look at us and wonder whether we have consciousness and seven percent thought they may just be thinking about that cute computer next door. If we suspend our disbelief and ascribe the possibility of human consciousness to computers, half of us think they will be having deeply philosophical thoughts such as whether we are conscious and what it all means, and a third of us think they will have more traditional thoughts such as how overworked they are and whether their fellow computer might date them.

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If we round up it looks like the 80/20 rule is in effect. Eight out of ten Americans do not think computers could ever be considered truly alive and 20 percent think they could be some day. By any human definition, the vast majority of Americans say it would be a stretch to think of computers as ever being truly alive but those in the minority report that stories from Frankenstein to A.I. have made some people think twice about what it is that makes us truly alive.

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A majority (again with 53 percent) of Americans do not think that computers will ever be able to tell right from wrong and 43 percent said someday they will. Men (50 percent) and people under 30 (57 percent) are more likely to think they will be able to and women (58 percent) and people over 30 (56 percent) say no way.

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As stated earlier, the great majority of Americans do not think machines will ever be considered truly alive, but they aren't taking any chances. Sixty-eight percent think it's a good idea that all devices with A.I. should come with an "off button," 15 percent think it's pointless, they'll just turn themselves back on and 13 percent say it isn't necessary.

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And now, the award for best picture about artificial intelligence goes to...." I, Robot" Isaac Asimov's morality fable about a future with robots with 27 percent, followed by James Cameron's "The Terminator" 18 percent, A.I. nine percent, Robocop eight percent, Blade Runner five percent, Ex Machina four percent, Metropolis two percent and one out of five had not seen any of them. Many of these films depict a future where we lose control of the machines we build. Considering how much we rely on machines to run everything from nuclear plants to weapon systems these stories may seem less far-fetched in the future and look more like cautionary tales.

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From the list provided, 32 percent of Americans would take refuge from the robot army at the nearest military base followed by their church or synagogue 19 percent, their neighbor's Y2K bunker 15 percent, MIT's faculty lounge six percent, Stephen Hawking's house three percent or nowhere they would welcome their new robot overlords (14 percent).

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Two out of three Americans think that human intelligence poses a greater threat to humanity and 30 percent think that Artificial Intelligence does. Whether it is human or artificial intelligence that ultimately poses the greater threat, they are two sides of the same coin. Artificial Intelligence is born from human intelligence and like it or not, we own it.


This poll was conducted by telephone from February 5-9, 2016 among a random sample of 1,021 adults nationwide. Data collection was conducted on behalf of CBS News by SSRS of Media, PA. Phone numbers were dialed from samples of both standard land-line and cell phones.

The poll employed a random digit dial methodology. For the landline sample, a respondent was randomly selected from all adults in the household. For the cell sample, interviews were conducted with the person who answered the phone.

Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish using live interviewers. The data have been weighted to reflect U.S. Census figures on demographic variables.

The error due to sampling for results based on the entire sample could be plus or minus four percentage points. The error for subgroups may be higher and is available by request. The margin of error includes the effects of standard weighting procedures which enlarge sampling error slightly.

This poll release conforms to the Standards of Disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls. Read more about this poll.