The digital divide refers to the disparity between those with access to digital tools and those without. AI has the potential to break down the divides and promote digital inclusion – or it could make the divide worse. If the world can recognize AI’s potential to widen the digital divide, we can address these challenges before they become more severe.
SwissCognitive Guest Blogger: Zachary Amos – “Will AI Reduce or Deepen the Digital Divide?”
Digital technologies have become central to many aspects of everyday life and business. While this shift has many advantages, it also creates a disparity between those with access to these tools and those without — a phenomenon known as the digital divide. AI introduces more complexity to this issue.
As its growth continues to skyrocket, it could help people overcome the digital divide or make the gap wider than ever before. It all depends on how its adoption and use continue from here.
The State of the Digital Divide Today
The digital divide stems from the world’s reliance on digital technology — most importantly, the internet. Fast, reliable access is becoming increasingly important to succeeding in the workplace, as modern employers want workers with tech experience. Similarly, those with better internet connections and skills can work remotely, giving them more job opportunities than those without.
Similar discrepancies pop up in education. Roughly 17% of American students can’t complete their homework because of poor internet access. As a result, kids without digital resources struggle to achieve the same educational outcomes as their peers. Without that education, they’ll be at a disadvantage once they enter the workforce.
While digital access has increased significantly over the years, it’s still a pressing issue. As of 2022, a third of the world doesn’t have internet access and more than half don’t have high-speed internet. This gap tends to affect already marginalized people groups more heavily, too.
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Lacking digital access and tech experience will become a bigger disadvantage as more companies embrace digitization. Even though the number of people on that side of the gap may be shrinking, the divide itself is growing.
How AI Could Promote Digital Inclusion
Thankfully, AI could help the world bridge that gap, starting with making high-speed internet more accessible. One of the reasons over 39% of rural Americans lack broadband access is that it’s difficult to bring internet infrastructure to remote areas while keeping costs low. AI analytics make this planning easier.
It can analyze which areas need the internet the most and what types of connections would be most cost-effective. It can then manage network traffic in real time to enable more stable connections, even in rural environments.
AI can also promote digital inclusion by personalizing tech education. Machine learning can see which resources are most effective with different students. If teachers tailor tech lessons to these individual needs, more children can learn to use technology effectively, even if they don’t have the same resources at home.
Intelligence-powered features like voice controls, real-time translation, autocorrect and image recognition can also make technology more accessible. People with language barriers or disabilities that hinder them from using conventional technology can use these applications to gain equal footing in terms of tech experience and skills.
How AI Could Worsen the Digital Divide
While AI could make significant progress in closing the digital divide, it could also worsen it. The COVID-19 pandemic quickly increased tech disparity as more education and work went online, highlighting the dangers or rapid digitalization. Because AI moves so quickly, it could become an essential part of work and school before everyone has the tools to take advantage of it.
Roughly 25% of companies today say AI and machine learning talent is their most sought-after tech skill. As automation occurs in more processes, knowing how to use this technology will become even more important to staying competitive as a worker. Such a shift could leave those who can’t access AI today due to internet or economic barriers at a disadvantage in the future.
AI will transform jobs. The positions that grow in the future will be those requiring either extensive tech experience or highly developed skills in unautomatable areas. These roles often require education levels or life experiences people from some backgrounds may lack. As a result, today’s digital divide will affect people more heavily tomorrow as AI changes the workforce.
Where to Go From Here
These obstacles don’t mean AI is bad — experts agree AI will create more jobs than it takes in the long run. However, that shift could be long and painful if companies don’t consider how the digital divide plays into it.
Closing the digital divide amid AI growth starts with recognizing where it could go wrong. Once organizations see how AI reliance could disadvantage some people, they can focus on these populations. Offering upskilling programs to give them necessary tech skills and investing in accessibility-minded technology will help level the playing field before AI causes too much disruption.
Businesses must put people before tech adoption, viewing AI as a way to help disadvantaged communities before they look to it as a profit driver. Legal regulations around AI and workforce development may be requisite to encourage this mindset.
AI’s Rollout Must Mind the Gap
AI is a powerful tool. Its impact will be substantial, no matter how people use it. It’s up to the businesses capitalizing on it to ensure that power goes to helping instead of hurting.
If the world can recognize AI’s potential to widen the digital divide, it can address these challenges before they become more severe. AI could then make the world a fairer place.
About the Author:
Zachary Amos is the Features Editor at ReHack, where he writes about artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and other technology-related topics.