AI Threatens to Widen Latin America’s Digital Divide
The challenge is designing public policies to address the rise of the technology in poor nations often beset with unstable leadership.
Lawmakers in Costa Rica writing a bill with ChatGPT. A judge in Colombia using the same tool to ask for advice in a case before him. A news anchor developed by artificial intelligence giving live reports in Mexico.
As in the rest of the world, both the wonders and absurdities of AI are increasingly visible in Latin America. The difference is that the region is among the world's most unequal when it comes to not only income but also technology. The question for both corporations and regulators is how to use the rise of AI to narrow that divide.
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While smartphone adoption in the region is only slightly lower than in richer countries, about 40% of Latin American homes still don't have fixed broadband, according to a 2022 study, limiting the availability of Internet connections needed to study, work or do online transactions. The digital divide is especially stark between urban and rural areas — and while the disparity is longstanding, the worry is that the explosive irruption of AI will quickly widen it.
“We face a revolution, and those who are part of it will take off, while those who aren't run the risk of staying very behind,” says Ángel Melguizo, an economist who advises UNESCO on artificial intelligence and a partner in the Madrid-based Argia consultancy firm. If nothing is done, “these gaps are set to grow.”
The challenge is how to design public policies to address the rise of AI in poor nations often beset with unstable political leadership.
The region needs to foster more widespread and inclusive digital adoption, says Luis Adrián Salazar, an international consultant and the former minister of science, technology and telecommunication for Costa Rica. He proposes special funds, created by governments, to finance retraining for jobs that will be affected by AI. He also suggests a summit meeting of heads of state to discuss a unified approach to AI.
If leaders fail to address the digital divide, he says, other divides — in wealth and politics, for example — could get even worse, leading to “an increase in other social breaches, including violence,” he says. Some governments have made inroads in designing a strategy for AI and, even with clear disparities, there is increasing awareness of the opportunity. Yet in general Latin American countries do not do well in an index created by Oxford Insights, a UK-based consultancy, to measure AI readiness.
A generally low public investment in science and technology, combined with the high cost of private funding, will make it hard for Latin America to be a leader in AI. Furthermore, given the region's tendency to be a buyer of high technology instead of a developer of it, there is the risk of digital adoption turning into another venue for the competition between the US and China in Latin America.
There is a more optimistic scenario. Despite political swings and various economic crises, the region's technology industry has continued to grow at a fast pace. There were 34 tech companies worth more than $1 billion last year in Latin America, up from zero at the beginning of the century. And some governments are open to experimenting with technology — with El Salvador's adoption of Bitcoin as the prime example.
Still, there can be no doubt: Latin America's governments, corporations and civil society need a strategy — and fast — if they want to meet the AI challenge.
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