Will AI exacerbate or alleviate the existing digital divide?

Will AI exacerbate or alleviate the existing digital divide?

A significant portion of Australians are currently excluded from digital connectivity, which deprives them of the social, educational, and economic benefits it provides. This digital divide has prompted discussions about creating an inclusive future for artificial intelligence (AI). However, if we fail to learn from the current problems of digital exclusion, it is likely that these issues will also affect people’s experiences with AI. This is the main finding of a new study published in the journal AI and Ethics.

The digital divide refers to the social gap that exists between those who have access to digital services and those who do not. This divide creates difficulties for individuals in terms of accessing, affording, and using digital services, significantly reducing their quality of life. Extensive research has shown that older people, those living in remote areas, individuals with lower incomes, and First Nations peoples in Australia are most at risk of being digitally excluded. Globally, one-third of the world’s population, particularly in the poorest countries, remains offline. Additionally, women, especially in low and middle-income countries, face more barriers to digital connectivity.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the impacts of digital inequity. As people were forced to stay at home and limit face-to-face contact, those without digital access were severely affected. The consequences ranged from social isolation to reduced employment opportunities and limited access to vital health information. The UN Secretary-General even stated that the digital divide has become a matter of life and death.

The digital divide is not solely a question of access. It also affects individuals’ familiarity with digital technology, eroding confidence and leading to disengagement. This creates a sense of not being “digitally capable.” As AI tools become more prevalent in workplaces, classrooms, and everyday life, there is a risk that AI could deepen the digital divide rather than narrowing it.

To understand the impact of digital exclusion on people’s experiences with AI, researchers surveyed hundreds of Australian adults in late 2023. They found that digital confidence was lower among women, older individuals, those with reduced salaries, and those with limited digital access. People’s perceptions, attitudes, and experiences with AI were closely linked to their feelings about digital technology in general. In other words, those who felt more digitally confident had a more positive view of AI.

These findings are crucial for building inclusive AI. They confirm that digital confidence is not evenly distributed among individuals. Digital inclusion goes beyond access and skills; it also involves a person’s confidence in interacting with technology. If existing forms of digital exclusion are not addressed, they are likely to spill over into perceptions, attitudes, and experiences with AI. Efforts to reduce the digital divide must continue alongside the rise of AI to prevent exacerbating the divide.

While there are associated risks, responsible deployment of AI can have significant positive impacts on society, particularly in addressing issues of inclusivity. For example, AI can enable blind or low-vision spectators to track the trajectory of a tennis ball during a match. It can also analyze online job postings to improve employment outcomes for underrepresented populations. Additionally, AI-powered chatbots have the potential to increase accessibility and affordability of medical services. However, achieving this responsible AI future requires addressing the factors that contribute to digital division. This involves not only addressing access and infrastructure issues but also considering the impact on people’s engagement, aptitude, and confidence with technology.

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