Guest Blog: The Fourth Industrial Revolution Must Benefit Everyone

It’s often said that the Fourth Industrial Revolution will be faster and more disruptive than the first three. That’s certainly true for the developed world, but history suggests developing countries likely will have a completely different experience. For example, farms in developed countries often use drones and satellites to assist with crop production, while many of their peers in developing countries still rely on livestock-drawn implements and manual labor.

So when anticipating how the Fourth Industrial Revolution will improve how we live, work and play, it’s important to consider how to ensure those benefits extend to developing countries, too. Otherwise, the Fourth Industrial Revolution will further expand the divide between the developed and developing world.

Two places to start are artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomous systems (AS) because they’re key enablers of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. For instance, Healthtap’s Dr. A.I. asks patients questions and, based on their responses, follow-up questions. Dr. A.I. then analyzes all of that input, along with the patient’s health record, so it can route her to the right physician.

Dr. A.I. works over the Internet, including facilitating virtual office visits with physicians. So it’s an example of how AI can improve access to healthcare not only in developing countries, but also underserved parts of developed nations such as remote, rural communities.

Access to Broadband and Open Source Software are Key

But several challenges are holding back AI/AS adoption in the developing world. Currently about 4 billion people worldwide don’t have Internet access. Although mobile broadband technologies are steadily bringing more of them online, only 37 percent of Sub-Saharan Africa will have Internet access by 2020. That means nearly two-thirds of its population will be bystanders rather than beneficiaries of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Software is another factor. There are 4,500 start-ups using AI tech abilities in India, which shows that developing countries have the will and talent to help pioneer the Fourth Industrial Revolution. But their ability to play that role—and for their societies to benefit as a result—requires access not only to broadband, but also open-source AI software, which lowers development costs.

New World Order

A few tech companies, based in the developed world and China, currently dominate AI, giving them a head start when it comes to reaping the benefits. Mitigating this first-mover advantage requires global policies to ensure developing countries have access to open-source AI software and the other tools necessary to participate in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Distributing these opportunities globally also gives people in developing countries more control over their personal data. Because so many of them currently aren’t online, they don’t understand concepts such as how their digital activities are tracked, analyzed and monetized by third parties—practices that will continue with AI/AS. It’s critical that global organizations such as the OAS and UN work with governments, corporations and NGOs to begin crafting policies and best practices to ensure that people in developing and developed countries alike can control their AI/AS data privacy.

Also, developing countries are more vulnerable to the effects of automation on job opportunities, particularly for those with limited or no skills. A 2016 Citi report suggests AI and robotics will hit developing countries hardest, leading to more economic migration. These effects would be felt globally, including in developed countries.

Kai-Fu Lee, a venture capitalist focused on AI, recently wrote in the New York Times: “Unless they wish to plunge their people into poverty, they will be forced to negotiate with whichever country supplies most of their A.I. software—China or the United States—to essentially become that country’s economic dependent, taking in welfare subsidies in exchange for letting the ‘parent’ nation’s AI companies continue to profit from the dependent country’s users. Such economic arrangements would reshape today’s geopolitical alliances.”

Where to Start

When most people think about AI/AS, they view it as shifting control from humans to computers. They rarely consider how AI/AS also can shift power from one set of humans to another. That shift can be positive, such as people in developing countries leveraging AI/AS to improve their health and wealth. But that shift also can be negative, such as concentrating even more economic power in developed countries.

Now is the time to develop public and corporate policies to ensure that every country has ample opportunities to not only benefit from the Fourth Industrial Revolution, but also play a role in enabling it. For example, businesses and their investors should make corporate social responsibility a foundational component of their AI/AS strategies and product development. One way is by establishing a labor re-education fund for workers displaced by automation.

This type of initiative helps ensure that AI/AS is always for the common good. More such initiatives are needed. A recent World Economic Forum paper advocates putting people first through a human-centered growth model that designs in social inclusion.

Developed countries can’t assume that their successes from previous Industrial Revolutions will insulate them from the latest’s potential negative effects on developing countries. That’s because the growing level of interdependence between communities mean the challenges and opportunities are truly global. Climate change, poverty, globalization and technology are closely interconnected.

To help drive discussion of these kinds of public and corporate polices, the IEEE Global Initiative on Ethical Considerations in AI and AS created a committee to consider the impact of AI and AS in the developing world. One example is exploring new ways of valuing our economy, such as measuring human wellbeing rather than GDP. To learn more, visit

About the Author

Guest blog post by Kay Firth-Butterfield, Executive Committee Vice Chair, The IEEE Global Initiative for Ethical Considerations in Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Systems and Project Head, AI and ML, World Economic Forum

Kay Firth-Butterfield is a Senior Fellow and Distinguished Scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, University of Texas, Austin, and executive committee vice chair of the IEEE Global Initiative for Ethical Considerations in Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Systems. She is also the Project Head, AI and ML for the World Economic Forum.