They say we will have to rethink what it means to be human and reinvent or replace major institutions

Follow the links on this page to read the full Expert Insights report

February 29, 2024. As uses of artificial intelligence (AI) systems expand, a two-part research study reveals a broad range of opinions as to how complicated and, at times, disorienting these life-changing digital tools are likely to be and how they might affect people’s lives and societies. Elon University’s Imagining the Digital Future Center conducted the canvassing reported on here – tapping into the insights of a select group of global technology experts and analysts – and a separate U.S. national public opinion survey late in 2023.

Both the canvassing and the survey asked respondents about key aspects of life and the potential impact of AI on them. They were asked whether they thought the effect would be more positive or more negative across a number of domains. The experts were also invited to write open-ended answers about the individual and societal gains and losses due to AI impact by 2040.

Considered together, these combined qualitative and quantitative studies represent one of the most comprehensive assessments ever recorded of public and expert views about the impact of AI on a wide range of domains of society.

Participants in both the U.S. public opinion survey and the canvassing of global experts were asked to view a list of topics and express how AI’s impact might influence each. Both groups expressed concerns over the future of privacy, wealth inequalities, politics and elections, employment opportunities, level of civility in society and personal relationships with others.

The report on the linked pages in this set focuses only on the global experts’ opinions. In all, 328 experts responded to at least one aspect of the canvassing, including 251 who answered at least one multiplechoice question and 166 who provided written answers to the key open-ended question. They were asked to respond to quantitative questions about 25 aspects of life.

More than 50% said they worry that the impact of the uses of AI on people’s privacy, wealth inequalities, politics and elections, warfare, basic human rights and level of civility in society will be far more or somewhat more negative than positive by 2040. Most experts were also more concerned than not about the future impact of AI on people’s relationships with others, their employment opportunities and criminal justice systems.

On the positive side, more than 50% said they expect that uses of AI will be far more or somewhat more positive than negative by 2040, having a mostly beneficial effect, on healthcare and transportation systems, people’s day-to-day work tasks, shopping for goods and services, the overall performance of the economy and environmental protection and sustainability. Many expect a slightly more positive than negative future for formal education systems from K-12 level through higher education, the quality of life in cities and access to knowledge from accurate sources.

(For fuller details on quantitative results, see the section Experts’ answers to questions about AI’s impact on individuals and society and the Research methodologies section.)

The qualitative predictions in this report emerge from a nonscientific canvassing of technology developers, business and policy leaders, researchers, analysts and academics by Elon University’s new Imagining the Digital Future Center. The survey was conducted from Oct. 4 to Nov. 6, 2023.

The primary open-ended qualitative prompt the experts responded to was:

Considering the likely changes created by the proliferation of AI in individuals’ daily lives and in society’s social, economic and political systems, how will life have changed by 2040? What stands out as most significant to you? Why? What is most likely to be gained and lost in the next 15 or so years?

A large share of these global experts and analysts mentioned the great gains they expect, yet they focused their responses mostly on expressing worries over the potential losses they fear. Their responses to the prompt surfaced five major themes – click on the headlines below to move directly to each theme or use the side navigation on this page:

Theme 1 – We will have to reimagine what it means to be human

As AI tools integrate into most aspects of life, some experts predict the very definition of a “human,” “person” or “individual” will be changed. Among the issues they addressed: What will happen when we begin to count on AIs as equivalent to – or better than – people? How will we react when technologies assist, educate, and maybe share a laugh with us? Will a human/AI symbiosis emerge into a pleasing partnership? Will AI become part of our consciousness

Theme 2 – Societies must restructure, reinvent or replace entrenched systems

These experts urge that societies fundamentally change long-established institutions and systems – political, economic, social, digital, and physical. They believe there should be major moves toward a more equitable distribution of wealth and power. They also argue that the spread of AI requires new multistakeholder governance from diverse sectors of society.

Theme 3 – Humanity could be greatly enfeebled by AI

A share of these experts focused on the ways people’s uses of AI could diminish human agency and skills. Some worry it will nearly eliminate critical thinking, reading and decision-making abilities and healthy, in-person connectedness, and lead to more mental health problems. Some said they fear the impact of mass unemployment on people’s psyches and behaviors due to a loss of identity, structure and purpose. Some warned these factors combined with a deepening of inequities may prompt violence.

Theme 4 – Don’t fear the tech; people are the problem and the solution

A large share of these experts say their first concern isn’t that AI will “go rogue.” They mostly worry that advanced AI is likely to significantly magnify the dangers already evident today due to people’s uses and abuses of digital tools. They fear a rise in problems tied to extractive capitalism, menacing and manipulative tactics exercised by bad actors, and autocratic governments’ violations of human rights.

Theme 5 – Key benefits from AI will arise

While most of these experts wrote primarily about the challenges of AI, many described likely gains to be seen as AI diffuses through society. They expect that most people will enjoy and benefit from AI’s assistance across all sectors, especially in education, business, research and medicine/health. They expect it will boost innovation and reconfigure and liberate people’s use of time. Following are excerpts from experts who shared optimistic 2040 predictions.

A number of expert respondents focused on AI’s implications for the highest-order questions our species can ponder. For instance, Stephan Abram, principal at Lighthouse Consulting, wrote, “The best consequence of AI … is that it should inspire a deeper discussion of what it means to be human. The great works of philosophy, sociology, ethnography, psychology, etc., need to be brought to the forefront of the AI discussion. … By 2040, the world should have engaged in a rigorous discussion and developed a framework for AI guardrails and principles:

  • What does ‘first, do no harm,’ mean in the new context?
  • What is a soul?
  • What is cognition?
  • What is identity? …
  • What is emotion? How does emotional intelligence play out in AI’s evolution? …
  • What is the human contribution to insight, creativity, innovation, invention, filtering, etc.?”

And, as Carol Chetkovich, professor emerita of public policy at Mills College, put it, “Then there’s the existential problem: At what point might humans become obsolete?”

Continue reading: Compelling ideas in the experts canvassing