Access to digital worlds are now part of our everyday lives, from banking to shopping and everything in between, much of our lives are now spent transacting online. But that’s not the case for all communities in Southeast Asia. The digital divide is identified as the gap between those who can and cannot access and benefit from Information and Communication Technology (ICT); age, gender, income, linguistic ability and education all influence the gap. The World Bank and many government and non-governmental organizations recognise that education and digital infrastructure are essential to reduce the prevalence of people living below the poverty line because it provides equality and financial stability. Here we explore what causes the gap and how artificial intelligence may be able to help close it.

Why is education a part of the problem?

The lack of education impacts social and economic development and increases the digital divide.  In response, the United Nations developed two agendas: the ‘2030 Agenda for sustainable development’ which shares the vision to be living in a world where ‘equitable and universal access to quality education at all levels’ is assured; and Sustainable Development Goals, which include education as one of the seventeen goals established to ensure ‘peace and prosperity for the people and the planet’. 

When someone is poorly educated they are less likely to have the resources available to them, yet when they have access to digital networks, they have the opportunity to increase their skill level and therefore their desirability for future opportunities. This is a major catch-22 situation. Those in more impoverished communities face more barriers due to the high cost of mobile and such devices and the internet. These limitations minimise the potential for further education and employment, which affects entire communities and countries. 

What can be done about limited access to technology?

Unfortunately, many countries are being left far behind due to the lack of infrastructure, often determined by low economic capabilities. This limits access to resources and education. The Digital Divide Institute exists to close the digital divide and its initiative, Meaningful Broadband, has been active for ten years. They acknowledge that broadband can empower populations, but it needs to be more readily available, cost-effective and usable in an effort to reach human equality. They are committed to bringing broadband to the masses and are creating broadband ecosystems to enable more of the world’s populace to have access to digital empowerment. 

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Some governments are also joining the cause. Take Thailand, for example; they have committed to providing around 6.3 million people, in remote areas, with free access to the internet. They have started issuing Digital Welfare Cards to those who would not otherwise have been able to afford the service, which helps to close the digital gap. Given small-medium-enterprises (SME’s) employ between 52%-97% of the population in the ASEAN member states, they are in a position to influence the digital divide. 

Where possible, if they diversify their employee portfolio, by using technology, they can employ more staff in remote areas, who would otherwise not have had the chance to earn an income for their families and communities. It’s not as easy as it sounds, because many SME’s do not have access to digital platforms, so the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) have made a stand with their Going Digital project to support this transition.

How can AI help?

A big problem with the divide is the lack of available resources in remote areas. Thankfully with the help of tech disruptors in the market using Artificial Intelligence (AI),  it is possible to improve the quality of living and influence a more inclusive society. In South Asia, AI is providing virtual classrooms to medical professionals so they can master their skills and provide essential healthcare that residents in local communities may not have otherwise received. Unicef currently has an innovation fund available for those who are dedicated to closing the digital divide for the almost four billion people not currently connected to the internet. The solutions they are looking for include AI strategies which provide online access to educate young people in remote areas, increasing their chances of employment. 

Although the digital divide continues to be a challenge in modern society, there are measures in place to ensure the gap closes. These solutions are spread across a diverse set of accountabilities- from individuals and SMEs to large tech disruptors who are changing the terrain altogether. It has been acknowledged that having access to digital resources provides more equal opportunities and inclusivity for people to thrive and grow. However, we are still in the early stages of levelling out the playing field. With the use of AI, we can expect to see exponential growth over the next few years.

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