Closing the Gap – a series of Oxford University postgraduate student insights to the Skoll World Forum 2018
Hugh Courtney 2018 EMBA student at the Saïd Business School, reports on the Skoll World Forum session ‘Emerging Technologies: Shifting the Path from Poverty to Prosperity?’
Whilst Silicon Valley pundits are quick to espouse the benefits of a world transformed by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, many detractors worry about the impact that Automation and Artificial Intelligence (AI) will have on jobs, inequality and livelihoods. Whilst this debate centres on the developed world of the USA, EU and UK, are we considering the impact this will have on low and middle-income developing countries where the majority of the world’s population live? On a gloomy Thursday morning in Oxford, this was the question raised by Stefan Dercon (Professor of Economic Policy, Blavatnik School of Government).
Many of the benefits of Automation and AI are well known and frequently cited by their proponents. It will increase efficiency and throughput, allocating available resources more effectively and freeing humans up to think and be creative, removing the need for humans to perform repetitive tasks. What about opportunities for poor people? Terah Lyons (Executive Director, Partnership on AI) and Gargee Ghosh (Director, Development Policy and Finance, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) see healthcare and precision agriculture as possible early beneficiaries. Vaccines designed to stimulate the bodies own antibodies show promise in leading to a reduction in communicable diseases. In agriculture developing more resilient crops (such as green super rice), mapping regional soil composition and remote image mapping could generate significant benefits for yield, sustainability and planning for 75% of the world’s poor who are farmers. Ghosh is quick to point out however solutions need to contain a bundle of different technologies to be effective. She also notes that engaging with the correct end user of the solution is very important to avoid designing technologies what people are unlikely to adopt (one such example was an innovative seed planter which had to be redesigned because the it was too heavy for the end user, primarily women, because only men had been consulted in the early design stages).
Maryanna Iskander (CEO, Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator) has a counterintuitive view on job losses and job creation in Africa. Through her work in South Africa, which has the second highest youth unemployment rate in the world at 54.2%, she has found that young job seekers do not have an expectation of a linear career path, but rather they expect to “hustle”, which she asserts will enable them to adapt more easily to a changing world. In fact a country like South Africa may actually be less susceptible to job displacement than a developed country, an assertion supported by a report conducted by the World Bank which found that the automatable share of employment (adjusted for adoption time lag) was lower than the average for an OECD country (57.0%) at 47.9%. In an automated world, humans will naturally occupy positions where empathy and emotive abilities are required, which may mean less disruption of jobs in countries like South Africa, where STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) jobs make up a small proportion of existing jobs.
Job seekers developing skills at Harambee Youth Accelerator. Picture Credit: Fred Swaniker (Facebook)
Creating solutions that are not exclusionary or ignorant of the needs of the poor is an important challenge to overcome. Lyons believes the onus is on technology companies to ensure this does not happen. Her organisation formed a board consisting of a balance of NPOs and private sector stakeholders. In addition, she points to engaging early with constituencies which may traditionally not have been represented or only engaged at a late stage. Given that regulation tends to lag innovation, Lyons asserts that the actors in technology need to hold each other to account, pointing to her previous findings whilst working for the Obama government that the private sector was spending on average eight times as much on research into AI than the government (as at 2016).
For Iskander ensuring solutions are not exclusionary is not only about regulation but also getting to grips with the realities and dispelling myths. Understanding the root of the problem is key and as Iskander points out, this is not always as simple as one might expect. Her organisation makes use of data in many cases to confirm what they already know. Despite the much-publicised penetration of mobile phones across Africa this does not always translate into usable information. In Iskander’s experience, people may have access to phones but are not as likely to have access to data (air time). Counterintuitively this increases the importance of using multiple channels to communicate including traditional print.
In closing Dercon pointed out that the session raised more questions than it answered. One aspect is however clear: the fourth industrial revolution will have a revolutionary impact on how we live, but path from poverty to prosperity will remain the responsibility of humans.
 World Bank, Unemployment, youth total (% of total labor force ages 15-24) (modeled ILO estimate). Unemployment, youth total (% of total labor force ages 15-24) (modeled ILO estimate) | Data. Available here [Accessed April 12, 2018].
 World Wide Web Foundation, 2017. A SMART WEB FOR A MORE EQUAL FUTURE. Webfoundation.org. Available here [Accessed April 12, 2018].