AI and Development: Age of Abundance or Huge Divide?

Governments need to enact responsible policies to govern artificial intelligence. Photo: Tara Winstead
Governments need to enact responsible policies to govern artificial intelligence. Photo: Tara Winstead

By Ozzeir Khan

AI has the potential to bring both abundance and division. It is essential for governments to recognize this now, to help shape the AI-fueled future that benefits all.

Never has there been a major development shift without the advent of new technology and its adoption. From the internal combustion engine to the internet, technology is the driving force behind the evolution of societies.

 Predictive and generative artificial intelligence (AI) are quickly becoming new drivers of development. Some examples are as follows:

Climate change. A Digital Urban Climate Twin is now being built in Singapore through the multidisciplinary project Cooling Singapore 2.0, which aims to improve the livability of the city-state, considering that it is increasingly becoming warmer due to the urban heat island effect. Simulations are being run to determine what variations of strategies will best reduce heat and improve the city’s resilience to climate change.

Transport. In Uzbekistan, a multiple-scenario digital analysis of road design is helping upgrade of a section of the A380 highway. AI and digital simulations were used to analyze data on geography, construction materials, and pavement solutions to determine which design options were best suited for the local context and are more cost-efficient, sustainable, and climate-resilient. 

Resettlement. Through the Digital Innovation Sandbox, AI was tested for monitoring and predicting resettlement outcomes in Mongolia. Anticipating potentially adverse outcomes is necessary to ensure that appropriate measures are in place to avoid or otherwise minimize, mitigate, and compensate for these impacts.

While AI is showing significant potential in driving development, the risk is real that generative AI could simultaneously usher in both greater prosperity and greater inequality.

Simply put,  generative AI will spark the rise of new economies—and the fall of others.

Predictive and generative artificial intelligence (AI) are quickly becoming new drivers of development.

Here are three actions governments could take to help slow the expansion of the AI divide in Asia and the Pacific.

Ensuring access to AI. Democratizing technology means that those who have not received formal training in information technology could still use generative AI to their advantage—provided they have an internet connection. However, 2.6 billion people do not. The talent gap in AI in the People’s Republic of China alone is expected to reach 4 million by 2030.

On a wider scale, governments and industries that are better prepared to adapt and harness the technology may find themselves emerging on top of the digital food chain, while those that cannot keep up with the fast pace will likely fall through the cracks, leading to greater inequality.

Imagine already prosperous economies accumulating even more wealth because they are in the position to heavily invest in generative AI and in upskilling their human resources. Contrast that with developing economies with less capacity to make both types of investments. Generative AI could also, directly or indirectly, lead to exploitation of human and other resources from developing countries. 

To be part of the AI economy, it is vital for developing economies to integrate AI literacy into education, invest in AI research, and craft and pass relevant policies and regulations that promote responsible AI development and deployment.

Supporting policies for responsible use of AI. Governments have a key role in helping shape this new AI-driven era. They have the capacity to convene various stakeholders and adopt overarching strategies on the responsible and ethical use of AI. Thus, they need to take the lead in setting up regulatory frameworks and guidance to ensure that these innovations are ethical, follow the “do no harm” principle, and support the improvement and protection of lives. 

AI is evolving at a fast pace and requires constant changes in governance.  In the coming years, AI will evolve from just text and multimedia generation that is now known for autonomous work, and will need government support at a faster pace.

Putting basic AI infrastructure in place. Understandably, developing economies face various financial constraints to invest in new technologies and build the necessary technological infrastructure. To compensate for this, they can collaborate with partners, such as the private sector and multilateral development banks, to help bridge the gaps. 

AI infrastructure tops the connectivity infrastructure investments that are driving digital growth in developing countries. This AI infrastructure focuses on data and models to drive value across sectors, leveraging foundation models like large language models. Without this basic AI infrastructure, the sectors in developing countries will not be able to reap the full benefits of developing innovation systems around AI to leapfrog connectivity gains compared to countries where these are in place. 

 While eyes are turned to the private sector to spearhead the development of AI infrastructure, it is important for governments to also be at the forefront, particularly in ensuring the responsible use of AI. It is paramount that developing countries are at an equal starting point for innovation discoveries and are part of the coming age of abundance rather than being part of the divide.  

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