Governments must wake to the risks of new technologies
Increasing automation of processes may worsen inequalities
TECHNOLOGICAL advances associated with the fourth industrial revolution – including artificial intelligence – allow the automation of an increasingly wide array of processes in increasingly interactive and sophisticated ways. These advances will likely give rise to many opportunities for economic and social development in developing countries, for instance by increasing food production.
But the new technologies also involve important risks, which have special significance in developing countries. They may build upon and exacerbate existing inequalities – both within developing countries and between developing and more developed regions.
Three of these interrelated risks are worsening unemployment, increasing concentration of economic power and wealth, and the spread of biases in influential algorithms. They will manifest in different ways and require different responses in diverse contexts. A cross-cutting problem is that too few developing country governments are giving these risks serious attention. Risk 1: Worsening unemployment The concern that new technologies – especially artificial intelligence – will lead to widespread job losses has been widely discussed. But historically new technologies have often given rise to more new jobs than the ones that have been automated away.
What’s perhaps different now is that the new, interconnected digital technologies will likely have a broader and more far-reaching array of abilities. And so the prospect of new kinds of jobs may well be diminished or limited to increasingly sophisticated domains, such as machine learning.
In addition, new technologies are now not just replacing jobs, but they are also enabling the disruption and restructuring of entire industries. For instance, Uber has already pulled the rug from underneath the conventional taxi industry in many places. Imagine the possible consequences of Uber’s shift to driver-less cars.
Aspects of developing countries’ contexts increase the possible severity of disruption.
First, the dearth of effective education systems and skills in countries like South Africa will make it more difficult for people to be retrained for the technology-intensive new jobs that will become available.
Secondly, all governments are struggling with the implications of new technologies and associated new business models. This struggle is particularly strong in developing countries.
Risk 2: Increasing concentration of wealth
Many developing countries are characterised by high levels of inequality within their populations. Elites within these countries will be more likely to make use of AI and other new technologies. This will further increase returns to capital widening the gap between elites’ productive capacity and that of everyone else.
A similar effect is likely at a global level. It’s no coincidence that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has identified AI as the new terrain for global competition between nations.
New technologies’ advantages for capital are not just due to increasing productivity, but also because they allow new business models that may control entire sub-sectors and stifle competition. For instance, it could become possible for a single company to control large fleets of automated vehicles in large areas.
Again, much will depend on whether states can keep up with these developments and respond effectively. Risk 3: Bias baked into algorithms Finally, the AI algorithms at the centre of the fourth industrial revolution will reflect and perpetuate the contexts and biases of those who create them. Difficulties faced by voice recognition software in recognising particular accents are a relatively innocuous example. Of course, the promise is that AI will enable such systems to learn to address such issues. But the learning process itself might be influenced by racial, gender, or other prejudices.
AI algorithms are developed almost entirely in developed regions. Thus they may not sufficiently reflect the contexts and priorities of developing countries.
Ensuring that AI algorithms are appropriately trained and adapted in different contexts is part of the required response.
It would be even better if developing countries become more engaged in the development of new technological systems from the get-go.
These three risks require that academics, businesses, and civil society actors attend to the role of new technologies in developing countries. But a special responsibility lies with governments. – The Conversation