June 13, 2021

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As Covid exacerbates inequality, some are questioning whether technology can bridge the gap

The side face of a particle-shaped robot.

Yoichiro Chino | immediate | Getty Images

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

As a hub for high-tech and innovation, Asia faces the same debate: Can technology work for everyone?

Developing economies are more vulnerable to unequal access to technologies such as artificial intelligence, according to Kai Firth Butterfield, head of artificial intelligence and machine learning, at the World Economic Forum (WEF).

“It’s partly because we don’t have enough data, because it wasn’t generated,” she told Rosanna Lockwood on CNBC’s The Edge.

AI can really be used in all areas, where we need to progress as human beings. Whether it’s climate change, healthcare or education.

Kay Firth Butterfield

Head of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, World Economic Forum

“We need data to train the models and we want that data not to get hurt,” she said, adding that developers need to come from those same emerging economies.

There is also a problem that a lot of people do not have the Internet and do not have access to AI tools. So these developing economies are hurting because they don’t have access to AI and the benefits that come with it.”

Decode the AI ​​clip

Despite its enormous potential, AI faces many challenges. It has been widely criticized for perpetuating inequality due to its inherent biases.

For example, Firth Butterfield noted that most developers who write software are men, which means that women are underrepresented.

“A lot of people who train algorithms tend to be male and tend not to be very diverse in their backgrounds. This means that they bring this lack of diversity to the algorithm training,” she said, adding that this often means that the input data can contain biases. Historical for those who created the data.

Furthermore, AI facial recognition software can be discriminatory because it does not recognize specific ethnicities.

“What we have seen, for example, is that it has caused very poor results for facial recognition for Africans. We have seen that this has caused very poor results when we use AI to develop loans, or when we use AI to help judges decide on bail requests Firth Butterfield noted.

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

Raising women in technology

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

Céline Le Cotonnec, Head of Data and Innovation at Bank of Singapore, noted that Covid-19 has exposed huge disparities between different companies – and this includes hindering the advancement of women in society.

“Everyone had to work from home. The children did not go to school, the woman is the main responsible for the care of the children, and they were the first who had to take a step in their career and in their activity,” said Kotonic.

“I think it hindered the progress the company was already making,” she added.

The Bank of Singapore recently joined the SG Women in Tech Initiative, a government-led effort aimed at inspiring women to envision a future in technology across Singapore.

“We promised that about 30% of our recent graduates will be women. There is a second initiative related to women’s empowerment,” Kotonic said.

“So we’re organizing… a workshop on empowering women in technology — so they can say, ‘It’s possible, I’m about to work not just in technology, but tomorrow, to play a role.'” A leader in our organization,” he explained.

government efforts

In its efforts to accelerate the benefits of artificial intelligence and technology, the World Economic Forum has launched the Fourth Industrial Revolution Center in more than a dozen countries. The goal is to work with governments and companies to help mitigate risks and test technology governance frameworks.

I would say that governments need to have national AI strategies and they need to do so urgently.

Kay Firth Butterfield

Head of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, World Economic Forum

“AI can really be used in all areas where we need to progress as human beings. Whether it is climate change, healthcare or education. We really want to maximize these benefits,” said Firth of the World Economic Forum.

“I would say that governments need to have national AI strategies and they have to do it urgently. There is not much in developed countries. [and] “Developing economies,” she said. “Tech companies clearly have a role to play. Companies are not spending money the way they can or should.”

She cited India and Singapore as examples of countries developing a national AI strategy. She said that such a plan allows companies to know what the government plans to do in this area.

Singapore has really shown the way. They worked with us on their model, their governance framework for AI and how companies should deploy AI and consider ethical challenges,” Firth Butterfield noted.

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