Amid the ongoing discussions around artificial intelligence (AI) and its expected impact on society, I can’t help but wonder where we, the lay people are positioned in all this. The rate at which information about AI is churned out is dwarfed only by the stars in the sky. Through podcasts, articles, news inserts and social media, tech pundits are seemingly on every platform telling us how to feel about AI. Dooms day commentators say we should care about how it will change our lives, how it will affect our jobs, and especially the ethics of it all. The pro-AI commentators say it will be humanities saving grace by improving our lives in ways we can’t yet imagine.
In the face of rapid innovation, how are we meant to respond to this thing called AI? And moreover, what action is the individual required to take to stay ahead?
In the best-case scenario, we find ourselves questioning our ability to contribute meaningfully to the AI conversation. We are intimidated by the technical jargon, but we have a healthy sense of curiosity, so we listen to the podcasts, watch the videos and test out ChatGPT or the Midjourney bot. In the worst-case scenario, the vast majority are unaware and carry on with their lives oblivious to the major changes happening in the world. As innovation and knowledge emerge as the new order, we’re witnessing a world divided into those who will use AI to their advantage and those left in the dark.
Of course, discussions of AI are inaccessible to the majority due to its complex nature. Although knowledge is readily available, there are obstacles for the layperson. Technological literacy, access to information, barriers to the internet and plain dis-interest are some factors keeping the uninformed, uninformed. Certainly, these vary from person to person and some may have entirely different set of circumstances keeping them from the discourse. We are rapidly witnessing an increasing gap between the informed and the uninformed. This gap represents the disparity of knowledge that often leads to underprivileged socio-economic realities. It stunts progress for the entire society.
However, as many keep reiterating – there is opportunity. Improving digital literacy to facilitate participation in the digital economy is paramount for the digital world we live in. According to the Digital 2023 South Africa report which shows the state of digital adoption and use in SA:
- There were 43.48 million internet users at the start of 2023, when internet penetration stood at 72.3 percent in a population of 60.14 million people.
- South Africa was home to 25.80 million social media users in January 2023, equating to 42.9 percent of the total population.
- A total of 112.7 million cellular mobile connections were active in South Africa in early 2023, with this figure equivalent to 187.4 percent of the total population.
The statistics are encouraging. It shows that the digital divide is decreasing despite the barriers to accessibility. Of course, one must consider the technology adoption lifecycle which illustrates how new technologies like AI are adopted by individuals and groups over time. The nature of the AI adoption rate will widen the digital divide. Those who lack access to quality education and resources will find it difficult to be proficient in AI related technologies. It is therefore in the interest of progress for the country to speedily improve the oldest piece of technology, the education system. In an international study by Pirls, according to the Department of Basic Education, 81% of grade 4 pupils in SA can’t read for understanding. It is a shocking statistic. Our children, nieces and nephews, brothers and sisters are a part of this system. The traditional system of education is a technology too, one of the oldest, and if humans don’t use it correctly to onboard its users, the implications for them are dire in a digital world.
In 2023 more than ever, knowledge is power and often knowledge creates opportunity. Currently, anyone can learn how to build AI. There are many open-source deep learning websites like Openai.com, tensorflow.org or fast.ai offering tutorials, documentation and examples on how to express AI. Everyday, there are new resources, learning platforms and organisations launching to aid in the adoption and creation of AI technologies.
Recently, The South African Artificial Intelligence Association (SAAIA) was launched as the industry body focused on uniting practitioners across Commercial, Government, Academic, Startup and NGO sectors. They also provide resources and AI TV.
The truth is the cogs of progress are spinning in favour of those in the knowledge group and spinning out of favour of those who are not in the knowledge group. The acquisition of knowledge often determines success, and what is needed is a culture of lifelong learning. The sinister reality is that there is a small group of world leaders, engineers and start-ups choosing how AI will be expressed. They are deciding how the world will change in front of our eyes, and we are mere onlookers hoping for the best. It is essentially up to each of us to build digital literacy and leverage accessible resources to adapt and thrive in a rapidly evolving world.
Article written by Kim Barlow