It’s a cliché to state that technologies both transform and disrupt the lives of people and companies. Hence, I will be stating the obvious when I insist that this trend will continue at even a faster clip. However, if legislation does not keep pace with cutting-edge digital technologies—which is it unlikely to do, ever—my contention, which may sound counter-intuitive, is that the digital divide may only get wider.
On the positive side, smartphones today are a radio, phone, television and even the power of the internet, all put together. They help us stay in touch with our family and relatives, transfer money, buy goods, pay our bills, and even monitor our blood pressure and heart beats.
Digital technologies are revolutionizing healthcare. Doctors are using smart devices to remotely monitor the health of patients, and even perform remote surgeries with the help of robots—of course, not the Terminator or SkyNet ones made popular by sci-fi films. They are also using artificial intelligence (AI) technologies like machine learning and deep learning to seek patterns and diagnose diseases better than any specialist could do. Gene-editing tools like CRISPR-CAS9 (and variants of it), too, are helping doctors find treatments for life-threatening diseases.
Youngsters—born between 1995 and 2015 and better known as Gen Z—take electricity, gas cylinders, phones and the internet for granted. But even for Gen Z, for whom programming is almost second nature and who are familiar with terms like the Internet of Things (IoT), blockchain, robotics, virtual and augmented reality and drones (and know that AI abounds on the internet and in their smartphones with voice assistants, smart cameras and numerous smart sensors), this is just the beginning of a very exciting but challenging journey.
We are already seeing the onset of driverless vehicles, hyperloops, bullet trains, low-cost satellites, flying copters, quantum computers, bendable and foldable screens and robots that care for the elderly, clean our rooms, move goods, serve food and even issue parking tickets, among other things.
With 5G on the anvil, practically every device will potentially be able to communicate with another and we may soon see the advent of smart walls that become our screen when we point a device at them. These smart screens will provide us with entertainment, infotainment (with augmented reality and virtual reality built in) and many other interesting possibilities.
Retail will dramatically change once devices begin ordering goods for robots to deliver. People will routinely walk in front of smart mirrors and buy customized clothes (what it does to tailors is a different story), and robots at counters (or counters with voice AI) will recognize you and even alert you if you have missed some item on your regular grocery list.
The challenge is that there is always the grave danger of having too much data passing into the wrong hands—be it the hands of cybercriminals who can steal our identities (ransomware is already the bugbear of individuals and companies) or even governments that can (and do) use the data to connect the dots with the help of AI to govern our social media habits and introduce policies to instill in us what they deem as “proper" behaviour and police people with the help of Face IDs.
Further, genetically-modified designer babies (scientists will find a way to make them live longer) with enhanced memories and information downloads could redefine education and monopolize highly-skilled jobs. This, even as smart robots continue to make routine jobs redundant and those who can’t be reskilled fall by the wayside.
In smart transportation, what if a Level 5 (fully autonomous) car mistakenly drives over a human? Who will be responsible—the owner, the manufacturer, or the software provider? And what if mobs start fighting gang wars with 3D-printed guns that leave no trace when discarded (since plastic guns are melted)?
These are simply cases in point. It’s in this context that the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution move on 28 May to announce the creation of six councils to provide policy guidance and address governance gaps in areas like autonomous driving, precision medicine, blockchain, and AI, is a step in the right direction.
Yet, you may ask (and rightly so): What has all this got to do with digital technologies increasing the digital divide?
Here’s my submission: Despite my strong belief that the melding of science and technology is a critical part of our evolutionary roadmap, smart technology has to become cheaper and be made relevant to the masses, failing which it could end up increasing the digital divide. A tacit admission by governments—that this technology disruption due to AI, automation and robotics will impact and alienate many people—is borne by the fact that we are mooting the idea of a “Universal Basic Income".
With three billion people predicted to still be offline in 2023, and many more failing to reap the internet’s full potential, the time to address digital exclusion is now, insists the Pathways for Prosperity Commission on Technology and Inclusive Development, which is hosted and managed by Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government. “Solutions are not just about shiny technology," the Commission notes, “but rather about diagnosing and fixing systemic problems first and using technology appropriately." India, with its increased focus on digital India and AI and a 1.3 billion population, surely has its work cut out.