As Covid deepens inequality, some ask if technology can narrow the gap

Side face of the AI ​​robot according to particle shape.

Yuichiro Chino | Moment | Getty Images

The global pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities around the world and raised questions about whether technology can help level the playing field.

As a leading center for cutting-edge technology and innovation, Asia faces the same debate: can technology work for everyone?

According to Kay Firth-Butterfield, director of AI and machine learning at the World Economic Forum (WEF), developing countries are more vulnerable to the access inequalities that exist with technologies like artificial intelligence.

“Part of that is because we don’t have enough data because it just isn’t being created,” she said Rosanna Lockwood during a special episode of CNBC’s The Edge.

AI can really be used in all areas where we as humans need to make progress. Regardless of whether it is about climate change, healthcare or education.

Kay Firth-Butterfield

Head of AI and Machine Learning, World Economic Forum

“We need data to train the models, and we need that data not to be biased,” she said, adding that the developers would have to be from the same emerging markets.

“There’s also a problem that so many people don’t have the internet and don’t have access to the tools of AI. So these developing countries are becoming biased because they don’t have access to AI and the benefits that come with it, ”she added.

Equalization of the AI

Despite its enormous potential, AI faces several challenges. It has been widely criticized for perpetuating inequalities due to its inherent bias.

For example, Firth-Butterfield pointed out that most of the developers who write the programs are men – that means women are underrepresented.

“Many of the people who train the algorithms are usually men and usually don’t have very different backgrounds. That means they bring the lack of diversity into the training of the algorithm, ”she said, adding that often that means the input data may contain the historical biases of those who created the data.

In addition, AI’s facial recognition software can be discriminatory because it does not recognize certain races.

“For example, we saw that this led to very poor facial recognition results in Africans. We have seen that when we use AI to develop credit, or when we use AI to aid, it has produced very poor results. “Judges make bail requests,” noted Firth-Butterfield.

“So we really have to work to fix that. And one way to do that is to make sure you have different teams around the developers. “

Advancement of Women in Technology

The pandemic has also exacerbated inequalities such as gender and race issues across Asia.

Celine Le Cotonnec, Chief Data and Innovation Officer at the Bank of Singapore, pointed out that Covid-19 has revealed huge inequalities between different companies – and that includes hindering women’s progress in society.

“Everyone had to work from home. The children did not go to school, women were the main caregivers of the children, they were the first to actually take a step back in their careers and in their work,” said Cotonnec.

“I believe it has hampered the progress that society has actually made,” she added.

The Bank of Singapore recently joined SG Women in Tech, a government-led initiative designed to inspire women to ponder a future in technology across Singapore.

“We have promised that around 30% of our new graduates will be women. A second initiative is about women’s empowerment, ”said Cotonnec.

“So we’re organizing … a workshop to empower women in technology – so that they can say: ‘It is feasible, I am actually not only working in technology, but tomorrow to take on a leadership role in technology in our organization’ “she explained.

Government efforts

As part of its efforts to accelerate the benefits of AI and technology, the World Economic Forum launched the Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in more than a dozen countries. The aim is to work with governments and companies to minimize risk and test frameworks for regulating technology.

I would say that governments need to have some national AI strategies in place, and urgently.

Kay Firth-Butterfield

Head of AI and Machine Learning, World Economic Forum

“AI can really be used in any area where we as humans need to make progress. Regardless of whether it is about climate change, healthcare or education. So we really want to maximize these benefits, ”said Firth-Butterfeld.

“I would say that governments need to have some national AI strategies in place, and urgently. There aren’t many in developed countries [and] Developing countries, “she said.” Of course the tech companies play a role. Corporations don’t spend money the way they could or should. “

She cited India and Singapore as examples of countries working on developing a national AI strategy. Such a blueprint enables companies to know what the government is planning in this area, she said.

“Singapore really showed the way. They worked with us on their model, the governance framework for AI, and how companies should adopt AI and think about the ethical challenges, ”noted Firth-Butterfield.

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