49th St. Gallen Symposium "Capital for Purpose": 8–10 May 2019

EDIT HEADER

Will Digital Divide in Automation Age Change the World's Economic Map?

The Current Divide

According to a 2017 report by the Nordic Africa Institute (NAI), differences in economic development, literacy, schooling, education levels, as well as lack of English language proficiency, lack of access to ICT technologies and a lack of democratic institutions, are all factors contributing to widening the digital divide between Africa and other European and Asian countries.

"While considering digital economies and the impact of introducing AI in different industries, we have to be aware that there are parts of the world where people are still getting introduced to computers and smartphones,'' says Bogolo Kenewendo, Botswana’s Minister of Investment, Trade and Industry.

Similarly, Sudanese author, engineer and social activist Yasmin Abdel Magied, Leader of Tomorrow at the 48th St. Gallen Symposium, believes that the main problem lies in the world’s one-sided image of Africa. Because access to electricity, water and and internet services are widespread in Europe, Europeans take those things for granted, which changes the way they approach the problems facing many African countries.

"In Sudan, people barely have their basic needs covered. I think it is a shame that the mental energy of the West is mostly consumed by their focus on travelling to space and automating every aspect of life, while many Africans still struggle'', she says.

 

Roots of the Problem

When it comes to integrating AI technology into African countries, one concern is that people will not be trained sufficiently for doing high tech jobs. "This will result in more unemployment, which will eventually lead to higher rates of drug addiction and violent crimes,'' says Barclay Paul Okari, the Kenyan founder and CEO of Impact Africa Industries.

In Abdel Magied's opinion, this will cause a bigger social problem. In many African societies, men will be hardest hit by these hypothetical job losses. Because women tend to be more highly educated in many countries, this will eventually lead to serious social problems, potentially disrupting societal and family dynamics.

"It is important to think of our responsibilities towards people. We need to ask: Is it actually ethical to fully automate a certain factory? What is the point of a business if it is not going to develop a community? As an employer, I should choose to hire a human workforce, even if it would be more expensive, to contribute to creating more stability in the society,'' Abdel Magied says.

While considering digital economies and the impact of introducing AI in different industries, we have to be aware that there are parts of the world that are still getting introduced to computers and smartphones.
Bogolo Kenewendo, Yasmin Abdel Magied, and Paul Okari at the 48th St. Gallen Symposium.

A Monopoly Challenge?

In 2017, a report by IBA Global Employment Institute stated that many African countries, especially in northern Africa, are not equipped to implement automation and digitization due to education levels, lack of investment in digital infrastructure and lack of legal framework. "Africa is at least 10 years behind the Western world in terms of the adoption of technologies,” says Okrai.

In Okrai’s opinion, countries talking about automation have underlying infrastructure, but Africa does not. This may result in a monopoly over technologies in Africa by multinational companies from Europe and the US. "Big companies will come and roll out those kinds of technologies, because they have had the capacity, financial resources and expertise for many years,” he says. Meanwhile “most of the systems are still running manually in many African countries.”

Okrai’s solution? He says it is the responsibility of the government to train people and help them learn how to code, how to deal with technology and get certifications to qualify themselves for a new technological era. When it comes to such a long-term investment, only a small part can be played by the private sectors that are mainly driven by fast profits.

Similarly, Abdel Magied expressed her worries about the risk of allowing foreign companies to do all the development work for Africans. "If a poor person is sitting there and a company comes and tells him, ‘we will bring the internet to you,’ he will not necessarily think about who provides it, or the price he is going to pay for this, or their political agenda" she notes.

She believes it is much better if the technology is owned by the people in the community. She does not want African nations to depend on Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook to provide service, for example, an approach she sees as fundamentally undemocratic.

From Abdel Magied's point of view, only cooperation between different African countries will give the continent and its people more negotiating power against technological monopolies. "What African countries need to do now is to start thinking about themselves as a bloc" she says.

When it comes to a long-term investment, only a small part can be played by the private sectors that are mainly driven by fast profits.