Algorithms and artificial intelligence: great knowledge gap in Germany

A large part of the population has only a limited knowledge of algorithms and artificial intelligence (AI) and can hardly assess the consequences of their use. It is particularly problematic that knowledge and attitudes towards algorithms and AI are highly dependent on the level of formal education.


at national scale

Press release

Bertelsmann Foundation

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This is despite the fact that awareness and acceptance of automated decisions has increased, even in controversial use cases. There is an urgent need to improve knowledge about technologies throughout society.

People with little education are significantly less familiar with algorithms and artificial intelligence than their more educated counterparts. In a representative survey conducted by the Allensbach Institute for Demoscopy on behalf of the Bertelsmann Foundation, only 54% of respondents with a primary or secondary school diploma said they had ever heard of the term “algorithm”. Many more people have a high school diploma or university degree (97%). Comparison with data from a previous survey from 2018 highlights the gap: while the proportion of people with a high school diploma or university degree who know little about the term “algorithm” or have never heard of it has almost halved to date (from 31 to 17%), it is only 7 percentage points less for those with low levels of education. This knowledge gap also exists in terms of knowledge of the term “artificial intelligence”, although it is somewhat less important here.

Algorithms are clear instructions for solving a previously defined task – similar to cooking recipes. For example, you can order software for word processing or child care allocation. Artificial intelligence, on the other hand, is based on algorithms and refers to computer systems that learn from data processing and help people solve tasks, make recommendations and make decisions automatically. “Algorithms and AI are changing our lives. We humans decide whether their engagement makes society more equal or reinforces existing inequalities and discrimination. For this, basic knowledge is essential for the entire population. The growing knowledge gap in Germany is therefore a real wake-up call,” says Ralph Müller-Eiselt, Program Director “Digitization and Common Good” at Bertelsmann Stiftung.

Overall, awareness of the term “algorithm” has increased over the past four years, from 72% to 81%. According to respondents’ self-assessment, their approximate knowledge of algorithms also increased. The application areas of algorithms and AI are also becoming more common. The best known are individual selection of advertisements and news, facial recognition in public areas, spell checks in word processing, and contact suggestions on online dating sites. This shows that the earlier respondents are aware of certain application domains, the more frequently they accept automated software decisions in those domains. This even applies to controversial apps due to their potentially serious social consequences. For example, more people than in the 2018 survey said that fully or partially automated decisions could be made by computers regarding CCTV facial recognition, pre-screening of job candidates, or assessment. solvency.

This development is sobering, especially because people still struggle to recognize the importance of algorithms to themselves. The proportion of respondents perceiving a strong or very strong influence of algorithms on their life and daily life only increased from 27% to 29%; with artificial intelligence, it is only 14%. Respondents are equally uncertain and undecided when it comes to assessing the social impact of technologies and assessing whether they should be classified as positive or negative. More than 40% do not say whether the increasing use of algorithms and AI brings more opportunities or more risks for our coexistence. Whether society will become more just or unjust as a result remains uncertain for 46% of respondents. “On the surface, knowledge of algorithms increases. But how their lives and society will change as a result is still hard to categorize for many people,” says Markus Overdiek, co-author of the study and project manager at Bertelsmann Stiftung.

In this context, the experts of the Bertelsmann Stiftung call for strengthening the development of knowledge and skills on algorithms and artificial intelligence in society. All citizens should be better informed about how technologies work and their social impact, regardless of age, education or income. In addition, the benefits of using algorithms and artificial intelligence must be clearly demonstrated in order to counter existing uncertainties. This requires concrete examples of application more oriented towards the common good than before. Such examples can make societal opportunities and risks, which were often still perceived as diffuse, more tangible through automated decisions. In the process, regular and differentiated reporting should make the little-known fields of application and the “invisible” effects of algorithms and artificial intelligence more visible.

For the study “What Germany knows and thinks about algorithms and artificial intelligence”, the Allensbach Institute for Public Opinion (IfD) conducted representative surveys among 1,090 people aged 16 and over. in Germany. The survey took place from January 6 to 20, 2022 through personal oral interviews. The study is part of a series of publications on the topic of algorithms and artificial intelligence from the “Digitization and Common Good” program of the Bertelsmann Stiftung.

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