The promise and pitfalls of artificial intelligence for global development

A participant interacts with a robot at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Dalian, China in 2015. Photo by: Benedikt von Loebell / WEF / CC BY-NC-SA

DAVOS, Switzerland — This week, as leaders gather in Davos, Switzerland, to discuss how to “create a shared future in a fractured world,” many of the conversations will center on the role of humans and robots in a future of automation or augmentation.

The teaser for a breakfast conversation that Microsoft is hosting on the promise and pitfalls of artificial intelligence captures the challenges and the opportunity well: “AI offers profound potential benefits and the opportunity to help tackle some of the world’s most pressing issues including accelerating economic growth, tackling the urgent issues of environmental sustainability, and transforming healthcare,” it reads. “But the accelerating pace of technology-driven change is also creating disruption and anxiety. It risks contributing to a sense of a fractured world, between a small group of people who benefit and a broader group of people who fear that they are being left behind. We need to come together to chart a path forward that ensures AI contributes to building a positive shared future for every community.”

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Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum, the organization behind the annual meeting of global elites in Davos, describes the new era we are living in as the “Fourth Industrial Revolution.” His latest book, published earlier this month and placed in goody bags for conference goers, looks at how we can shape the future we want to live in the midst of a rapid transformation. Together with partners from business and government, the global development community could play a critical role in ensuring that we maximize the benefits and minimize the risks of this technological revolution, and the World Economic Forum is recognizing this with a session for civil society leaders on emerging technologies.

An equitable transition

All too often, NGOs that feel nervous about the changes brought about by the Fourth Industrial Revolution latch onto one or two particular applications of these new technologies, such as drones for humanitarian response, but they miss the bigger picture, some experts told Devex.

“We’re missing how the emergence and convergence of these technologies affect our work,” said Mark Viso, CEO of Pact, the development nonprofit working with marginalized communities in almost 40 countries.

Thanks in part to conferences such as Davos, which draw attention to emerging technologies, NGO leaders know enough about AI to know they should care — but they’re less clear on the specifics of how it intersects with their work. “It’s as if we smell the stew, so we recognize it, but we’ve never tasted it,” he said.

Pact is in the midst of a strategic transition, and Viso said one of the things NGOs must consider is how to hire the people they need to navigate these new technologies, despite the lure of opportunities from Silicon Valley. He also talked about the importance of incubatory environments in developing countries so that AI solutions can be developed more locally, outlining the risks if AI is a technology of the West that gets deployed to the South. What this transition will really demand is changing the dynamics of how development happens, he said, previewing Pact’s upcoming event in Davos on how equitable progress in the Fourth Industrial Revolution demands a new paradigm for civil society and its relationship with government.

Agile governance

Tala is a Los Angeles-based company that allows users without any credit history to download a smartphone app that collects thousands of data points to develop what essentially works as a credit score, so they can access loans. One of those data points is a customer’s call logs. In rural areas, however, challenges with electricity and network coverage result in fewer phone calls than in urban areas; and with fewer data points, the algorithm may be less precise in determining creditworthiness.

Tala is just one example of a growing number of companies leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning to provide digital credit to the previously unbanked. But efforts like these can also demonstrate how good intentions might drive bad outcomes depending on whether data is representative, said Erica Kochi, co-founder of the Innovation Unit at the United Nations Children’s Fund and co-chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Council on Human Rights.

Artificial intelligence and machine learning are technologies that will transform the world, in part because they can identify patterns in data that can inform decisions, she said. But while this works well in areas of perfect data — such as earthquakes, where all events are recorded — in cases where data is imperfect, there are two major risks. One is that people who design the algorithms may not understand how they will be used, and the data points that train the algorithms may not be representative, she said.

“If the system fails, who will it fail for, and what are we going to do about it?” she said. “If something does go wrong, how do I know where it went wrong, and what’s my access to redress?”

One of the messages Kochi will focus on in Davos is how to prevent discrimination and bias in machine learning, which she said will demand action from business, governments, and the global development community. Each of these groups should consider how applications of machine learning impact human lives, on the spectrum of movie recommendations to autonomous weapons, she said. Kochi said that while legislation should not stand in the way of progress, some regulation will be essential for protecting human rights. Since this technology extends across borders, she suggested that an international body might perform the auditing of algorithms.

“Companies can either be responsible and work together with governments, NGOs, and international organizations to come up with the right governance, or they can be hindered with bad regulations,” Kochi said. “They will either be regulated out of existence, and we won’t see the benefits, or we’ll have to work together — and it’s going to be hard and messy but we have to do it.”

The Davos agenda features a number of sessions on agile governance of Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies, with many of these sessions developed in partnership with the World Economic Forum’s Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in San Francisco. “The rapid speed of technological change is dismantling traditional institutions and mechanisms for governance,” the agenda reads. “What tools can help leaders accelerate the response time, while ensuring the process remains inclusive and trustworthy of all of society?” Topics of conversation include national standards for global technologies, including one on “Drones for All,” one of the projects the World Economic Forum is focusing on at its center.

The future of work

As Devex reported previously, automation could disrupt not only the future of work, but also the future of global development.

In the typical path out of poverty, smallholder farmers head to urban areas for work, and export manufacturing allows economies to enter the global value chain, closing the gap between rich and poor countries. But, depending on how this transition is managed, automation could block that path for individuals and nations alike. There are concerns that the world is in a race to the bottom for wages and that, in many industries, technologies such as 3D machines will eliminate the need for outsourcing. The proposed solutions range from equipping young people with modern skills to providing a universal basic income.

Automation will disrupt the future of global development

Devex explores how the rise of automation and artificial intelligence could disrupt global development work, and speaks to experts who say the community is unprepared for the future.

Both upskilling and reskilling the basic income models will be on the agenda at Davos. Experts told Devex that when developing country governments look to donors and NGOs as partners to help them get ahead of this disruption, they find many of these institutions are so focused on the present that they are unprepared for the future.

But there are exceptions, and changes underway, with Kochi of UNICEF telling Devex that a priority for Henrietta Fore, the U.N. agency’s new executive director, who is also in Davos this week, is making sure young people have the skills they need for tomorrow.

By and large, the debates around the impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the digital economy do not take the experiences of developing countries into account, said Tim Sturgeon, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who specializes in offshoring and outsourcing the electronics and automotive industries. For example, they tend to talk about the future of work in the abstract rather than in terms of existing and future geographic inequalities, even though the worst outcome would be for the poorest places to fall even further behind.

One of the sessions at Davos this week asks how local solutions can ensure that AI benefits individuals and communities globally. In a recent report on the new digital economy for the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development, Sturgeon outlined three potential scenarios: Routine business functions such as manufacturing, coding, and back-office services could be brought back to developed countries, or eliminated; new tools could allow developing country firms to move up the global value chain, with 3D printing being an area with a lot of potential; or the “innovate here” and “produce there” geographic division of labor could persist. He told Devex these locally developed solutions will be key for developing countries to prepare for the disruptions the future of work will bring.

He noted a few examples from his own research, such as Mobivi, an employee benefits company in Vietnam that offers factory workers an integrated platform called iCare they can save and spend on.

“There are a range of things thought leaders at Davos can do to support platform innovation in poor countries,” he said. “One is to develop training programs, another is to subsidize or lower the cost of technology licenses in poor countries, and a third is for policymakers to lower import tariffs for key business services.” While these barriers are significant, they are relatively easy and inexpensive to solve, he said, calling the main issue awareness among policymakers of what is important.

Cross-border conversations

Davos brings leaders from a wide range of countries together to discuss how they might individually and collectively take on shared global challenges such as the future of work. For example, the Markle Foundation focuses on realizing the potential of information technology to address some of the most pressing national challenges in the U.S. Markle Foundation President and CEO Zoë Baird sees Davos as an opportunity to share lessons from her own work and learn from other countries.

“When we started looking for ways to improve the labor market in Colorado through our ‘Skillful’ initiative, we quickly realized that it’s not just the education sector or the government or even employers who need to adjust. It’s the entire workforce system. Engaging everyone from employers, educators, policymakers, to the workers themselves in this process has been crucial for advancing systemic change,” she said. “Every state and every country will need to transition their workforce to the digital economy. This is important to get right. Unless we can include everyone in the economic benefit of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, trust and societies will decay.”

Baird will appear on a panel in Davos called the Digital Skills Imperative, in which panelists from the U.S. and the United Arab Emirates will discuss how to scale digital skills building efforts quickly enough to respond to rapid digitalization and mass automation.

Increasingly, global development professionals are joining the conversation about the Fourth Industrial Revolution, from Davos to San Francisco and beyond. For example, the Center for Effective Global Action and the World Bank’s Development Impact Evaluation Initiative are planning a one-day workshop in San Francisco exploring how AI can be used to better understand global development, from predicting migration patterns to measuring crop yields to mapping poverty. TechChange is gearing up for an online course on Artificial Intelligence for International Development, in an attempt to cut through the hype, understand the value, and build basic skills, given the potential impact on public health, agricultural extension work, disaster response, and more. And for each month in 2018, +SocialGood is hosting an online conversation on emerging technologies for the global goals, with monthly conversations on how technologies such as blockchain, mobile technology, and driverless cars can advance global development.

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About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Catherine also works for the Solutions Journalism Network, a non profit that trains and connects reporters to cover responses to problems.