Digital technology has the power to revolutionize developing nations. 

When we talk of technological innovations, we tend to focus on their impact on industrialized countries – making processes and products faster, more efficient, and more accurate; bringing smart technology to people’s homes; or reshaping the way we work. But in other parts of the world the impact of these innovations will be just as transformative, in a different way.

In countries like India, technology in all its forms can generate jobs – not take them away – while at the same time improve on basic services like healthcare and education. This is the central premise of Bridgital Nation: Solving Technology’s People Problem, a new book by the Executive Chairman of Tata Sons N Chandrasekaran and Roopa Purushothaman, Chief Economist and Head of Policy Advocacy at the Tata Group.

Launching the book at a Tata Consultancy Services event during the 2020 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Chandra argued that AI can generate jobs in emerging countries, instead of accepting technology as an inevitable replacement for human labour.

In major markets, he said, technology is about driving efficiency. But in India it is about creating the market first. Another contrast comes between AI and automation being used to plug gaps in the workforce in some countries, versus using the technology to augment underskilled workers.

“We need to remove the myth that AI is for the elite,” Chandra said. “How do we make AI available for everyone, so that we can help people gain the skills they need?”

At the same time, it is important, he added, that India is able to preserve and maximize its scarce numbers of highly skilled workers.

N. Chandrasekaran, Executive Chairman of Tata Sons

Powering jobs with technology

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella added that he viewed his company’s mission as empowering people and organizations to achieve more – and this applies as much to areas of America that are lacking broadband as it does to countries like India.

“In 2020, we think the world needs digital technology to drive the next stage of productivity growth because, the reality is, the world is not growing. At least not the way it was,” he said.

But alongside the power of digital technology to help developing nations grow, there is a need for that growth to be more inclusive. Job creation and empowerment can be achieved by giving people who need to learn new skills access to technology, he argues

The missing middle

However, governments and policymakers have a role to play in ensuring the technology is available for all, Hayat Sindi, Senior Advisor to the President of the Islamic Development Bank for Science Technology and Innovation, pointed out. This could include, for example, making sure countries invest in women in STEM.

She talked about the “displacement effect”: “We’re going to lose some jobs and there is going to be job creation. We call it the displacement effect. In the short term, this will mean a balance between job creation and losing jobs, but in the long-term it will actually create jobs, because more technology will emerge. So the view from the developing world is AI is a game changer.”

In India, large numbers of women do not participate in the workforce. But with the right digital intervention, this could change, Chandra added. In his book, he terms the swathe of workers that could be empowered to join the workforce the “missing middle”.

Hayat Sindi, Senior Advisor to the President of the Islamic Development Bank for Science Technology and Innovation.

Reskilling for a Bridgital era

As technology rises in prominence, software engineers are going to be “in the DNA” of every company, said Chandra. And so democratizing tools will be key to ensuring people have the skills for these new jobs. Where once people grew up learning reading, writing and counting, it is becoming much more important to teach collaboration and critical-thinking skills.

The whole education system will need to go through a total rejig, and not everyone needs to follow the same pattern of going from primary to secondary and then tertiary education.

Building trust and balancing ethics

Central to harnessing the power of digital will be building trust and understanding in the technology. For example, for AI to develop and improve it needs data. And this adds to the ever-more complex privacy debate. On top of this, the increasing prevalence of technology is further increasing cybersecurity risks.

Nadella talked of need for the “cyber equivalent of the Geneva Convention”, where nation states and technology companies come together to protect the most vulnerable populations.

Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft.

People designing AI need to make sure that ethics is always front of mind, and models are built without bias. And there is a balance to be struck between allowing for innovation and making sure that those that programme innovations have self-discipline, said Dr Rania Al-Mashat, Minister of International Cooperation, Ministry of International Cooperation of Egypt.

“There urgently needs to be more discussion and rhetoric on that – bringing to the fore the risks of just letting everything be. But at the same time, that requires a lot of effort – and a lot of coordination and partnership,” she said.

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