Will AI Widen or Weaken the Global Digital Divide?

Posted by Madeline McSherry on Jul 6, 2018 12:42:21 PM
Madeline McSherry
Find me on:

In the 1990s, US President Bill Clinton warned about a growing “digital divide” — a disparity between those with access to the internet and those without. If we didn’t “broadly share the knowledge and the technology that is developing,” he argued, we’d see rising “inequality, frictions, anxieties among people.”

Policymakers around the world seemed to take these warnings to heart. In 2003, the United Nations and the International Telecommunications Union put mitigating the digital divide on the global development agenda. In the US, policymakers made efforts to expand broadband access to rural areas, and in the early 2000s, began introducing Net Neutrality regulations.

But an internet connection alone isn’t enough to mitigate the world’s complex social and economic inequalities. Increasing levels of connectivity have failed to deliver the economic growth once expected, and 82 per cent of global wealth generated last year still went to the top 1 per cent.

Now, new and emerging technologies beyond the World Wide Web are threatening to widen the gap further. Access to Artificial Intelligence (AI) — the most powerful of these advances — is poised to become the next global differentiator.

As AI begins to disrupt industries and economies around the world, what impact will it have on the global digital divide?

Making Matters Worse

Organizations and entire industries have joined the AI gold rush — chasing after shiny promises of unparalleled productivity, process optimization, and cost-cutting. According to PWC, AI may spark an increase in global GDP as high as 14 per cent by 2030.

But who’s really going to benefit from these gains?

China and North America, most likely. These regions are set to take home almost 70 percent of AI’s economic benefits. Meanwhile, developing countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia will see less than 6 percent of this total increase.

John Tornow/Flickr

Worse still is the global AI talent shortage, which is likely to hit economies in the Global South the hardest. In a study conducted by EY last year, more than half of senior AI professionals surveyed said a lack of AI talent was a major hurdle to implementation. With most of the major tech hubs centered in the Global North where the lure of high-paying salaries attracts top talent, developing nations will have a tough time finding and keeping the data scientists and specialists required to develop and apply AI.

So unless the potential benefits of AI are distributed equally around the globe, the technology may usher in new kind of digital divide — an overwhelming global chasm between the AI “haves” and the AI “have-nots.”

A Bridge Across the Divide?

But the global impact of AI isn’t all fire and brimstone for developing countries. It may also provide countries around the world with some unexpected opportunities.

First, emerging markets may have the chance to leapfrog more developed nations. We’ve already seen it happen in the banking industry across Africa. Now, from Nigeria to Uganda to South Africa, we’re seeing companies and hospitals employ AI, machine learning and other technologies to effectively treat patients in remote areas and improve diagnoses. While the US struggles with soaring healthcare costs and inadequate coverage, African nations may be well on the road to universal healthcare thanks to digital innovations.

Beyond the possibility of technological leapfrogging, projects that prioritize “AI for good” have demonstrated how AI can foster resilience and prosperity in the developing world. In 2014, for instance, IBM launched a sophisticated Ebola tracking system that enabled citizens to communicate issues to the government and healthcare agencies, and enabled these agencies to better analyze and optimize solutions.

If AI can bring as much prosperity as it’s promising, it means there will be enough of it to go around. The real challenge, then, if figuring out how to share the wealth.

Charting AI’s Future

Over 20 years have passed since Clinton issued his prescient warning about the digital divide — a reminder that the challenge of technological inequality is not new.

Ars Electronica/Flickr

And like our predecessors of the 1990s, we are not passive participants in emerging technologies or their effects. AI is still nascent, which means there’s time for us to decide how we want to develop and implement it — and time to determine what kind of global society we want to create.

How can we make sure that AI and the opportunities it affords are evenly distributed? How can we make sure everyone — regardless of race, gender or geography — gets their fair share of AI’s digital dividends?

Over the next couple months, Ada-AI’s community of thinkers will explore these and other questions around AI and the global digital divide. We hope to spark nuanced debate and new thinking — and we invite you follow, share, and contribute. 

Topics: International Development