March 2017: Project Literacy Launches Report on Human vs. Machine Literacy in the US at SXSW

Smartphone Will Read and Write Better Than 32 Million American Adults in the Next Decade

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Smartphone Will Read and Write Better Than 32 Million American Adults in the Next Decade

Smartphones Will Read and Write Better Than
32 Million American Adults in the Next Decade

‘Machine literacy’ tipping point for software like Siri, Alexa and Cortana imminent - while American literacy rates remain stagnant, says forecast by University of Massachusetts Amherst and Project Literacy

AUSTIN, Texas – March 9, 2017:  While progress in improving human literacy rates has stalled since 2000  -- leaving 750 million  adults worldwide and 32 million Americans  illiterate-- a new report predicts that technological advances will soon enable over 2 billion  smartphones to read and write. At the current rate of technological progress, devices and machines powered by AI and voice recognition software will surpass the literacy level of one in seven American adults within the next ten years.   

In their report, ‘2027: Human vs. Machine Literacy’ the global campaign Project Literacy and Professor Brendan O’Connor, University of Massachusetts Amherst, call for society to commit to upgrading its people at the same rate as upgrading its technology,  so that by 2030 no child is born at risk of poor literacy.

They highlight:
•    Machine literacy already exceeds the literacy abilities of 3% of the US population who are non-literate 
•    There are more software engineers  in the United States than school teachers .  We are focusing so much on teaching algorithms and AI to be better at language that we are forgetting that 50% of adults cannot read a book written at an eighth grade level 
•    32 million American adults can not 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 for schools is $40.4bn . In 2015, investment in AI reached $47.2 billion and is expected to keep on increasing.  

Project Literacy, founded and convened by Pearson, is a campaign backed by more than 90 partners as diverse as UNESCO, Microsoft, Worldreader, the Clinton Foundation, Room to Read, Doctors of the World, the Hunger Project and ProLiteracy. 

“‘Machine reading’ is not close to mastering the full nuances of human language and intelligence, despite this idea capturing the imagination of popular culture in movies such as ‘Her’. 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” said Professor Brendan O’Connor, University of Massachusetts Amherst. “I was interested in exploring this topic as 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 two billion smart phones will soon be capable of reading and writing, but 750 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' said Kate James, Project Literacy spokesperson and Chief Corporate Affairs and Global Marketing Officer at Pearson.

Project Literacy commissioned the report to draw attention to the shocking lack of progress being made in fighting illiteracy as well as shine a spotlight on the potential for technology to help bring about change.  The global movement aim to harness the power of technology to tackle the illiteracy crisis through a range of technology-led partnerships [See Notes to Editors for Case Studies]. 

The report was launched ahead of Project Literacy’s upcoming presence at SxSW in Austin, where representatives will be on the ground raising awareness of the issue of illiteracy among the tech-savvy festival goers. Project Literacy will be encouraging the public to get involved in the fight against illiteracy through a number of unique experiences including an interactive Spelling Bee and thought-provoking talks. To support the initiative, Pearson will be matching donations from the festival on a 1:1 basis [See Notes to Editors for full details].

Download the research here.

For more information visit 



Notes to Editors

Key Statistics on Illiteracy

Illiteracy is a truly global problem:
●    32 million adults in the United States can’t read.  And one in four children grow up without learning how to read. 
●    More than 70% of inmates in American prisons cannot read above fourth-grade level (typically 9-10 years old). 
●    No country has ever achieved continued economic growth without having first achieved an adult literacy rate above 40 percent.  
●    Illiteracy costs the world $1.19 trillion a year.  It costs a developed nation 2 percent of its GDP each year and an emerging economy 1.2 percent of GDP. 
●    In sub-Saharan Africa, the number of illiterate adults has increased by 37 percent since 1990. 
●    In India, 287 million people do not have basic reading skills. 

Project Literacy at SxSW

Project Literacy Spelling Bee 

Date:  12th March
Time:  6pm
Location:  Techspace, 45 Brazos Street, Austin
SxSW attendees can compete to raise money for literacy challenges and organizations working to address illiteracy on the ground. 

Project Literacy Booth

Date: 11th, 12th and 13th March.
Time: 8am-4pm
Location: JW Marriott Hotel  

The Project Literacy Booth will give attendees the chance to learn about Project Literacy’s new ‘Give your word’ campaign, with visitors also able to see some of the inspiring stories of real adults learning to read and write. Whilst at the booth, guests will also have the opportunity to talk with a Project Literacy rep and find out how they can be involved. 

Project Literacy Talk

Date: 13th March
Time: 11.30am-12.30pm 
Location: TechSpace, 45 Brazos Street, Austin

Project Literacy invites SxSW visitors to join the Breaking the Cycle of Illiteracy Happy Hour, featuring the premier of the First Words film; an emotive and moving film which showcases some of the real life stories of adults who have overcome illiteracy. Visitors will also be invited to stay and listen to a distinguished speaker panel, featuring Susan Herr, Library Director of the Bulverde/Spring Branch Library - a non-profit foundation library which excels in tech-based resources. This discussion will focus on how technology can be used to create a virtuous cycle of literacy to ensure future generations are able to read and write.

Project Literacy Technology Led Case Studies

World Reader
●    We partner with the non-profit Worldreader on a mobile technology project in India called Read to Kids 
●    This project aims to transform the home environment into a literate one, specifically through the use of mobile devices, and to empower parents to talk more and read more to their children. 
●    With the Worldreader mobile app, which is available on feature phones and smartphones, we are providing a rich bank of locally relevant content—in both English and Hindi—at very low cost to the end user. 
●    For the initial pilot, we are focusing on low-income parents in Delhi who have children six-years-old and younger and aim to engage 200,000 parents by 2017.

Clinton Foundation
●    We are partnering with the Clinton Foundation and its Too Small To Fail campaign to help parents take meaningful actions to improve the health and well-being of children ages zero to five, so that more of America’s children are prepared to succeed in the 21st century.
●    Together, we are building an evidence base on the use of mobile technology to empower parents and build children’s pre-literacy skills, evaluating pilot projects underway in communities around the U.S.

Project Literacy Lab
●    We also know that there are potentially exciting market solutions to tackling literacy and are working with The Unreasonable Group to develop the world’s first accelerator program focused on supporting rapid growth startups across key emerging markets that are positioned to help close the global illiteracy gap by 2030. Here is a full list of these ventures

●    We are partnering with UNESCO, who for 65 years has worked to ensure that literacy remains a priority on national and international agendas, on a joint research project on how to leverage innovations in information and communications technology, especially mobile. We will document and share innovative case studies to inform the work of governments, business, and civil society as they focus on literacy and to help deliver on commitments to the Sustainable Development Goals.

About Project Literacy 
Project Literacy is a global campaign founded and convened by Pearson to make significant and sustainable advances in the fight against illiteracy so that all people - regardless of geography, language, race, class, or gender – have the opportunity to fulfill their potential through the power of words. 

Project Literacy Partners include:
28 Too Many, 826 National, Achievement for All, Action on Addiction, AFRIpads, All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development, Angaza, Asia Foundation, Book Aid International, Book Trust, Books Beyond Words, CENPEC, Center for Literacy, Doctors of the World UK, Edom, Edovo, Eduze, FCB INFERNO, Feed the Minds, Fight for Peace, First Book, GOOD Worldwide, Guru-G, Guten, Insane Logic, Jumpstart, Karadi Path, Kingo, Lessons for Life Foundation, LightSail, Literacy Action, Literacy Partners, LitWorld, Livox, Microsoft, National Literacy Trust, NOW, Nutrition & Education International (NEI), Office of Adult Education - City of Philadelphia and Adults Can Learn to Read (ACLTR), Pearson, Pencils of Promise, Pledgeling, Project Literacy of Bergen County, ProLiteracy, Raising a Reader, Reach Out and Read, Read Easy UK, Read On. Get On., Reading is Fundamental (RIF), Reading Partners, Results for Development Institute, Robbie AI, Room to Read, SunCulture, The Big Issue, The Hunger Project, The Institute for Strategic, Dialogue, ThinkCERCA, Too Small To Fail, Ubongo, UNESCO, Unreasonable Group, Veerni Project, War Child UK, Weber Shandwick, Womankind Worldwide, World Literacy Foundation, Worldreader.

About Pearson 
Pearson is the world’s learning company, with expertise in educational courseware and  assessment, and a range of teaching and learning services powered by technology. Our mission is to help people make progress through access to better learning. We believe that learning opens up opportunities, creating fulfilling careers and better lives.
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