A majority of consumers are confused about what artificial intelligence really does, and have misplaced fears that inhibit them from embracing AI-based technology, according to a new study.

Despite that, “these fears are often eased once they gain firsthand AI experience – which ironically many enjoy today without even realizing it,” notes the study, conducted by Pegasystems Inc.

In a survey of 6,000 customers in six countries, Pegasystems found that consumers appear hesitant to fully embrace AI devices and services. Only one in three (36 percent) are comfortable with businesses using AI to engage with them – even if this typically results in a better customer experience.

“Almost three quarters (72 percent) express some sort of fear about AI, with one quarter (24 percent) of respondents even worried about robots taking over the world,” the study finds.

The irony in many cases is that consumers may be surprised to learn they are already exposed to much more AI than they realize.

“Only 34 percent of respondents thought they had directly experienced AI,” the study says. “But when asked about the technologies in their lives, the survey found 84 percent actually use at least one AI-powered service or device – such as virtual home assistants, intelligent chatbots, or predictive product suggestions. When asked separately to identify AI-powered devices, only 41 percent knew Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home run on AI.”

“Though AI has been around for more than 30 years, it has now evolved to the point that businesses can engage with each individual consumer on a real-time, one-to-one basis,” said Don Schuerman, vice president and CTO at Pegasystems. “But our study suggests the recent hype is causing some confusion and fear among consumers, who may not really understand how it’s already being used and helping them every day. Businesses need to focus on using AI to develop applications that provide real value for customers to improve their experiences rather than overhyping the technology itself.”

Schuerman said the biggest problem is a basic misunderstanding of AI by many consumers.

“Seventy-two percent confidently claimed they understand AI, but far fewer could correctly define what it is or what it can do,” the study notes. “For example, relatively few knew AI has the basic ability to interpret or understand speech (37 percent) or mimic humans (35 percent), while only half could identify some of the most common AI capabilities, like solving problems (50 percent) and learning (57 percent).”

These misperceptions are important because the study shows they have a negative effect on consumers’ openness to using AI, Schuerman explains.

“The data shows consumers are significantly more comfortable with AI if they think they have previously been exposed to it. Only one quarter (25 percent) of the people who report no AI experience feel at ease with businesses using AI to engage with them. But for AI veterans, this number jumps to 55 percent – a full 30 points higher,” Schuerman concludes.

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