AI for Good blog

How AI can boost digital inclusion: leaving no one behind or offline

Digital Economy | Inclusivity

By Erin Kalejs 

Artificial intelligence (AI) along with other digital technologies have the power to drive changes towards a more inclusive society where all profit from its use. From removing accessibility barriers, to improving access to education and increasing the capacity of healthcare workers, AI can enhance the quality of life on a global scale.  

Unfortunately, digital technologies are not accessible to all. Therefore, there is a good chance that unless concrete measures are taken, unequal access could exacerbate existing global inequalities. 

Why digital inclusion matters 

According to a 2021 report by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), internet usage has increased due to the pandemic. Today, ITU estimates that approximately 5.3 billion people – or 66 per cent of the world’s population – are using the Internet in 2022. This represents an increase of 24 per cent since 2019, with 1.1 billion people estimated to have come online during that period. However, this leaves 2.7 billion people still offline. 

Most of those without access live in developing countries. Those who are offline face a lack of access which divides the digitally empowered from the digitally excluded – named the “digital divide.” 

In today’s digital economy, digital inclusion is essential for improving people’s lives as it provides the knowledge, tools and infrastructure to benefit from online resources.  

This in turn, can speed up development for poorer countries by engaging more people as active participants in local economic and social opportunities.  

Watch the video below to learn more about achieving universal and meaningful connectivity in the Decade of Action  

Connecting the unconnected – leaving no one behind or offline  

By using AI and other technologies such as 5G combined with efforts from telecom, cloud and IT industries, it is possible to achieve a globally connected world.  

However, when it comes to use of AI it is important to acknowledge that just like internet access, the developed world has an inevitable yet unfair advantage in making fast progress in the AI revolution. Due to greater economic ability, richer countries are in a better position to make large investments in the research and advancement needed for creating modern AI technology. 

Developing countries on the other hand often have more pressing matters to solve such as education, healthcare and hunger, which outweigh investing in AI. Therefore, if developing countries continue to be left behind in the AI race, AI could actually worsen the digital divide. 

If we truly want to achieve a digitally inclusive society, equitable participation in the development and use of technology is key. This means the developed world, including both private sector stakeholders and government agencies, need to provide greater financial and technological support to the developing world in the AI revolution.  

Register for AI for Good’s upcoming webinar, Securing Digital Inclusion through AI, to find out more about concrete measures that can be taken to bridge the digital divide and actions that global stakeholders can take to secure digital inclusion through AI. 

Not all connectivity is created equal 

A 2022 report by the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) found that in all nine low- and middle-income countries they surveyed (Colombia, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Rwanda, India, Indonesia), urban internet users were more likely to have meaningful connectivity than rural internet users.  

For example, the rural meaningful connectivity gap in Rwanda is 267% – meaning that Rwanda’s digital economy would need to grow another 2.5 times over exclusively in meaningfully connecting rural communities to close the urban/rural divide. A4AI measures and defines “meaningful connectivity” as access to faster, 4G internet speeds, smartphone ownership, and daily, unlimited access in a regular location, such as home, work, or school. 

These eye-opening statistics point to another clear disparity and complex technological issue in our society that often gets ignored. When discussing the internet access factor of digital inclusion, it’s imperative that the quality of the internet people have access to also gets mentioned. Features such as speed, performance and latency are crucial factors of the digital divide. 

Globally increasing internet access without good quality performance, speed and reduced latency is a pointless gesture as without good quality access vulnerable communities cannot fully benefit from the internet’s potential. Poor quality internet access can impede employment opportunities, online education, community building, health care and many other essential resources. 

Access to properly functioning, high-performing internet is now increasingly being seen by experts as a fundamental minimum requirement to contribute to and benefit from our increasingly digitized society.