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In an AI-driven digital economy, how can developing countries keep up?

08 December 2023

UNCTAD eWeek renews the global call to guide artificial intelligence so it unifies rather than divides, helping to create an inclusive and human-centred digital future.

© Shutterstock/Gorodenkoff | A data centre stores and process data, which are essential to the learning and decision-making processes of AI systems.

Artificial intelligence, or AI, has taken the world by storm, bringing both immense opportunities and profound challenges for our economies and societies.

Its increasingly vital role in the digital economy is revolutionizing areas from data analytics to product and service personalization but also raising critical questions about privacy, data security and the ethical use of technology.

The world cannot afford to leave AI unchecked, experts at UNCTAD eWeek 2023 said.

“It’s essential that our approach to AI development aligns with the Sustainable Development Goals, addressing potential risks effectively, creating a digital future that is open, free, secure and centred around human needs,” UNCTAD Secretary-General Rebeca Grynspan said on 6 December as she opened a high-level session on the topic.

Joining her were diplomats, thought leaders and heads of international organizations, who together examined how the interplay between AI and the digital economy could evolve, particularly for developing countries, and how to ensure the benefits reach every nation and individual.

Risk of ‘knowledge slavery’

AI’s rapid advancement is outpacing current governance frameworks, and experts at eWeek raised concerns about the risks associated with the growing gap.

Misuse and harmful applications of AI could destabilize markets, spread misinformation even faster and escalate conflicts.

A particularly alarming risk identified was “knowledge slavery”, a scenario in which a centralized AI system could monopolize and control access to historical and new knowledge.

From flea markets to favelas

A few large platforms and countries dominate the AI landscape.

UNCTAD's Technology and Innovation Report 2023 reveals that AI front-runners such as China, the United Kingdom, and the United States possess nearly half of all AI-related publications and patents. This dominance leaves many nations, particularly least developed countries, lagging behind and often relegated to the role of mere data providers.

Likewise, a handful of global tech giants control most of the data flows and revenues from digital services, which further centralizes the direction and benefits of AI and aggravates existing technology divides based on geography, gender, income and age.

Experts at UNCTAD eWeek 2023 stressed the importance of democratizing AI to expand its benefits beyond major tech hubs to all corners of the globe, from flea markets to favelas.

Global cooperation is key

UNCTAD advocates for a future of AI that focuses on empowering all individuals and societies through its responsible and ethical development and application.

Achieving this requires inclusive digital cooperation, aimed at bridging disparities in digital access, data availability and innovation while ensuring AI advancements align with universal values and human rights.

Given the borderless nature of AI's innovation and impact, formulating effective policies and governance frameworks requires a harmonized, multilateral approach. Experts underscored the importance of ensuring participation from a diverse range of countries, particularly those from the developing world.

Steering AI in the right direction will also hinge on multi-stakeholder collaboration among governments, academia, the private sector, civil society and other key players. By working together, they can better anticipate and mitigate the risks, helping to strike the right balance between setting ethical guidelines and encouraging creativity and innovation.

The insights from eWeek will contribute to wider efforts driven by the UN Secretary-General’s AI Advisory Body, tasked with analyzing and advancing recommendations on the ethical development and use of AI.