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Asia Catches up on AI but Digital Divide Remains Between Rich and Poor

Singapore is the only Asian nation to make the top 10 in the Global Talent Competitiveness Index based on its technological strength. (VOA News)

The earliest fans of the internet wondered if it could be a democratizing technology, giving all people access to information, regardless of their income, social status, or level of freedom under their governments. Today another computer technology -- artificial intelligence -- raises similar questions, depending on whether it will bring benefits for all, or worsen the inequality already in place.

A new report, jointly released by Google, INSEAD business school, and Adecco recruiters, tackles those questions by ranking nations and cities based on how well they attract people to their workforce by investing in technology like AI. Asian nations shot up the Global Talent Competitiveness Index in 2020 compared to 2019, particularly developing nations. That has led observers to a two-pronged conclusion marked by cautious optimism: on the one hand, poorer nations can use this technology to get ahead; on the other hand, if people become complacent, the technological advantage could stay in rich nations.

“As talent becomes increasingly fluid and mobile, some early AI adopters could leverage this to become more talent competitive,” Bruno Lanvin, executive director of global indices at INSEAD, said, “however there are also signs that the ubiquity of AI is amplifying current imbalances and inequalities.”

Most large nations in Asia improved their rankings this year, including China, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia. The index assigns nations a score for each of dozens of indicators, such as how much technical education and training they provide, the amount of technology transfer they enable, and the level of social mobility.

The reason observers have drawn mixed conclusions from the index is that there is opportunity for developing nations to improve, but it is limited. For instance Malaysia got higher marks this year because it does a good job of matching workforce needs with talent. However the report authors say it “would benefit from higher tolerance and greater opportunities for minorities and immigrants.”

Residents walk down a street in Kyoto, Japan, a nation whose investment in artificial intelligence helped it climb three spots in the Global Talent Competitiveness Index. (VOA News)
Residents walk down a street in Kyoto, Japan, a nation whose investment in artificial intelligence helped it climb three spots in the Global Talent Competitiveness Index. (VOA News)

What the authors call most “worrying,” though, is the risk of a widening gap between rich and poor in terms of which nations are best preparing to use artificial intelligence. Rich city-state Singapore is the only Asian nation to break the top 10 of the index released last month. In the part of the study focused on cities, high-income Tokyo and Hong Kong are the best performing in the region.

Developing nations are able to make some progress because, at a lower level, technology is accessible and cheap. India and the Philippines, for instance, have become global call centers and IT outsourcing hubs, and it is relatively easy for their citizens to pick up basic coding skills regardless of their income.

However when technology needs move beyond just coding skills, more investment and resources help. Artificial intelligence, in particular, relies on massive amounts of data to be input and computer power to crunch the data. Nations and companies that amass that data, and the highly-paid professionals who can understand it, have such an advantage that it might become too hard for others to catch up in the future.“

AI also will affect people’s jobs and change the nature of work,”

Kent Walker, senior vice president of Google, said. “We need to anticipate these changes and take steps to prepare for them.”

Google has exactly such an AI advantage. It has been able to collect many photos to input into and improve its image recognition algorithms, for instance, at a level that would be hard for other companies to match.

The authors released the global talent index in hopes of highlighting the digital divide, as well as providing recommendations on how to solve it. They say to prevent people from being left behind, developing nations can focus on vocational training and lifelong learning, and not just for lower-skilled tech jobs like coding. People can learn to do work that is complemented -- not replaced -- by robots; machines may be able to move a syringe into position, but patients will still want human nurses to oversee the injection, for instance.

“The human role in the world of work is being augmented by technology rather than substituted by it,” Alain Dehaze, CEO of the Adecco Group, said.

At a government level, nations should agree on the rules and principles that guide AI research and uses, such as the need for data protection, the report said. That would increase the odds that new technologies are advanced in the interest of humans.