A Bertelsmann Stiftung survey conducted earlier this year in all 28 EU states in cooperation with eupinions found that less than half of all Europeans are familiar with algorithms, and just 8% knew much about them. A fifth of those survey lacked a basic understanding about algorithms’ use in everyday life, according to the study entitled “What Europe Knows and Thinks About Algorithms.“

“Most Europeans are relatively open to the use of algorithmic decisions in several areas,” say the authors, “though this is limited primarily to technical areas such as spell-checking or navigation systems, which generally have no direct impact on people. A large majority – 64% – are uncomfortable with computer systems making decisions about them without involving a human being,” according to the authors.

In general, those polled were largely positive about algorithms: 46% see more to gain than to lose with algorithmic decision-making. Only 20% see more disadvantages than advantages. Apparently, men and people with high educational levels see the advantages as more pronounced.

But from country to country it’s very different. Some 11% of Poles claim to know “a lot” about algorithms – the highest rate of all the surveyed countries – and only 3% find them “scary.” Across the continent,  25% of those surveyed in the UK claim they‘ve never heard of them at all. In France, 21% are worried about machine-based decision-making. In Germany in spring of 2018, 46% were ambivalent about the benefits versus problems associated with algorithms. Yet, by fall 2018, the study found, only 36% were sitting on the fence -- more clearly unsettled by the phenomenon.

Across the EU, 19 think of “manipulation,” when they think of algorithms, while 27% think of “efficiency.”A full 74% of Europeans want better controls put on the use of algorithms.

Those surveyed said that they “want algorithmic decisions to be easier to understand and they want the right to have such decisions reviewed by a human being.“ They also desire laws that algorithmic decisions be labeled as such.

The Bertelsmann Stiftung underscores this, proposing a "ban on masking algorithms," in which the EU would play a leading role. “The EU could send a strong political signal for using algorithms in the interests of the greater social good,” says the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Jörg Dräger, member of the executive board.