Presidential elections recently took place in Nigeria. The build-up to these elections saw tragic violence between groups of pastoral Muslims and farming Christians that was sparked largely by fake news circulating on Facebook. This fake news was designed specifically to instigate ethnic violence. Facebook is active in Nigeria with their initiative Internet.org, which aims to realize global internet connectivity, and meanwhile gives users ‘free’ access to Facebook. In Nigeria alone, 53 million new mobile internet users are expected to come online in the next seven years, a profitable market for Facebook.
The spread of fake news is but one example of the disruptive impact that digital technologies can have on society. In particular, artificial intelligence (AI) is expected to have a profound influence on societies in the near future.
Studies on the potential impact of such AI technologies on economic growth are remarkably unanimous in their conclusions: AI is great for growth. A model by the McKinsey Global Institute predicts that between now and 2030, AI will deliver additional economic output of a whopping $13 trillion. A question that has received much less attention, however, is how this growth can translate into economic development.
AI has already made positive contributions to economic development in numerous areas: early detection of epidemics, disease detection in crops, and providing financial services to rural areas, to name a few. However, particularly for poorer countries, it seems that it will be very difficult to actually realize these benefits.
The social effects of technologies are shaped by institutional, political, economic context in which they are rolled out. The example from Nigeria shows that in a society that is already characterized by ethnic divides, AI can reinforce or aggrevate existing systemic biases and lead to inequalities and even violence against certain social groups. Evidence from the U.S. suggests that algorithms and AI applications systematically aggrieve those in lower social classes and those with lower digital ‘literacy’. In poorer countries, which generally have more social inequality and lower quality insitutions, these social effects of AI are likely to be even larger. Furthermore, persisting differences within many developing countries between those who are able to participate in the design and implementation of AI and those who are not, could result in an uneven distribution of the benefits from AI.
Mitigating these negative effects presents a daunting task to policymakers, and demands a wide range of economic and institutional reforms. Even for the richest countries, regulating tech giants like Facebook is proving very difficult. However, the speed at which AI evolves and the potential benefits it promises make that this should be a top priority, particularly for poorer countries. Tragedies like those in Nigeria may unfortunately be a new reality, but inequality, social unrest and political instability resulting from AI must be minimized if development is to occur.
Bottom line: AI may be great for economic growth, but not for economic development. Poorer countries need to implement drastic economic and institutional reforms if they are going to benefit from AI.
* Please help my Growth & Development Economics students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice :).