AI can change the world but not if we leave people behind

As the IMF and World Economic Forum warn that artificial intelligence might exacerbate global inequalities, developing economies must be brought on board

AI potentially offers developing nations significant benefits around health care, education, predicting natural disasters and managing the effects of climate change. Getty
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Few developments inspire the imagination like artificial intelligence. If the advent of the internet were to be compared to the development of the written word, then AI is the printing press – a technology that offers the promise of creating, sharing and using online information in ways previously unthought of.

These potential opportunities to change how we live, work and communicate rightly generate a lot of excitement, but it is vital to ensure that when it comes to the global economy, AI does not simply replicate existing inequalities that already threaten to undermine human progress. This week, the World Economic Forum’s Chief Economists Outlook found that the experts it consulted thought generative AI will increase productivity and innovation – with the worrying caveat that this would be largely confined to the world’s richer countries.

“Looking at the next five years,” the report’s authors stated, “94 per cent expect these productivity benefits to become economically significant in high-income economies, compared to only 53 per cent for low-income economies.”

'We should be optimistic about AI,' Google tells The National at Davos 2024

'We should be optimistic about AI,' Google tells The National at Davos 2024

In the same week, the head of the International Monetary Fund, Kristalina Georgieva, issued a similar note of caution. In a blog post, she noted that “many of [low-income] countries don’t have the infrastructure or skilled workforces to harness the benefits of AI, raising the risk that over time the technology could worsen inequality among nations”.

Countries like the UAE have the resources to develop comprehensive AI strategies – and have been doing so. Others face more acute problems and are not able to prioritise advanced technology. This leaves them at a serious disadvantage if we accept AI’s potential to deliver better results when it comes to issues of particular concern to emerging countries – health care, education, predicting natural disasters and managing the effects of climate change.

So, how does the world bridge what threatens to be another gap between advanced and developing countries? At the core of the answer is partnership: low-income countries will need help to develop national and regional AI strategies. They must also be supported when it comes to investing in AI education and nurturing local talent. This can be done in collaboration with private companies and international partners. Key to all of the above are innovative forms of international financing.

There is a growing recognition among those at the coalface of developing AI that a wise approach involves not only improving the technology but making it as accessible as possible. Speaking at the WEF’s annual meeting in Davos, Matt Brittin, president of Google in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, told The National that it is important for the tech industry to “keep our eyes wide open about our responsibilities to get this right”.

Mr Brittin also spoke about the results of a poll released by Google this week that highlighted how most people around the world recognised the benefits of AI. That awareness was particularly strong in emerging economies where 71 per cent of respondents thought AI was having a positive impact on how they work.

There is a lot of optimism around AI. If the technology is improved and used wisely, it promises to have a profoundly beneficial impact on societies around the world. It is vital not to squander this opportunity by leaving some countries and communities behind.

Published: January 18, 2024, 3:00 AM