Notes on Notes: Preventing the development of artificial intelligence from exacerbating international inequity


Imagine an American family’s vacation in 2100. They have booked a holiday to Haiti to try a popular, new tourist attraction: tours of barbarian villages (ones that live without automation). This reality, though seemingly dystopian, is not an impossible future. If societies do not consciously use the development of artificial intelligence (AI) for the alleviation of global poverty and the advancement of developing nations, AI may worsen international gaps in wealth and well-being until they are impossibly disparate.

This feeling of danger is clear: countries such as Bangladesh, Colombia, and Zimbabwe do not have access to the same fiscal resources that Australia, Canada, and the United States do. Just as Forbes Magazine explains, one of the biggest barriers to the development of artificial intelligence is the cost; AI is expensive. It requires infrastructure, innovation, and extensive research—all resources that many developing countries are still struggling to provide in basic health care and manufacturing. As the United Nations University’s Our World publication explores, humanity “must contemplate a future in which technological, economic, and military supremacy becomes the domain of those few countries with the deepest pockets,” as these nations will start to allocate “the best AI-oriented talent and…state resources” to AI domination. Meanwhile, in countries such as Tanzania, 92.6% of citizens make less than $5.50 a day and 49.1% of citizens make less than $1.90 per day. While certain countries may be run by self-driving cars, another may be struggling to get walking shoes to its citizens. For this reason, this Fourth Industrial Revolution in western, private corporations may spell doom for our widening gap of international inequality. 

What is the Fourth Industrial Revolution? To Teck-Boon Tan and Wu Shang-su from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, it is our world’s arrival into “[e]xtreme automation & hyper-connectivity,” specifically in the 21st-century. Just as with past industrial revolutions, the discovery and subsequent implementation of new technologies, in this case AI, is leading to a surge in the capabilities of wealthy, developed nations. Companies, often with the sole goal of creating profits for their shareholders, do not have socio-economic justice in mind. Considering AI merely a vessel of humanity’s intentions, the number of companies such as Amazon and Sephora that will use our Fourth Industrial Revolution for financial gain and consumerism is incredibly high. What once took Kirkland 100 workers, 2 weeks, and $4000 now will take them 3 machines, 2 days, and $500. But in Uganda, tens of thousands of citizens will still die from malaria each year.  

However, this reality doesn’t necessarily mean that all AI technology must be limited or destroyed. In fact, the future of AI parallel to global development may also be a propeller. Speakers at the 2019 World Economic Forum (WEF), such as Colombia’s president Iván Duque Márquez, chairman and co-CEO of Salesforce Marc Benioff, and the Chinese venture capitalist and artificial intelligence expert Kai-Fu Lee, discussed the creation of Centres for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a WEF initiative meant to support developing countries through this burst of automation. These centers prioritize “co-designing policy frameworks and governance protocols” internationally, working to educate international public and private sectors in AI so they can use technology to rise globally. Research also shows that the implementation of AI will help fight poverty around the globe. Researchers at Stanford University have begun to use artificial intelligence to combat poverty in Africa, using satellite imagery with AI to map out economic progress across geographic lines and work towards advancement. 

Ultimately, companies and governments with the assets to develop artificial intelligence have an obligation to do so ethically, lest our world dissolve into a dystopian future divided by haves and have-nots. Rather than focusing on the novelty (and the few extra billion) that comes with a responsive toaster, efforts can be focused on getting education, water, and energy to remote villages. Unequal access to technology due to a lack of resources already divides our world. By taking an ethical approach to AI, we may come closer to unity than ever thought possible.