The ‘digital divide’ is already hurting people’s quality of life. Will AI make it better or worse?

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Today, almost a quarter of Australians are digitally excluded. This means they miss out on the social, educational and economic benefits that online connectivity provides.

In the context of this ongoing “digital divide,” countries are now discussing the future of inclusive artificial intelligence (AI).

However, if we don’t learn from the current problems with digital exclusion, it will likely spill over into people’s future experiences with AI. This is the conclusion of our new research published in the journal AI and Ethics.

What is digital distribution?

The digital divide is a well-documented social divide. On the downside, people face difficulties when it comes to accessing, affording or using digital services. These disadvantages significantly reduce their quality of life.

Decades of research have given us a better understanding of who is most at risk. In Australia, older people, people living in remote areas, people on low incomes and First Nations people find themselves digitally excluded.

Zooming out, reports show that a third of the world’s population – representing the poorest countries – lives offline. Globally, the digital gender divide still exists: women, especially in low- and middle-income countries, face substantial barriers to digital connectivity.

During the COVID pandemic, the effects of digital inequality became all too apparent. As a large portion of the world’s population had to “shelter in place” – unable to go outside, visit shops, or have face-to-face contact – anyone without digital access was at grave risk.

The consequences range from social isolation to reduced employment opportunities as well as lack of access to important health information. The UN Secretary General said in 2020 that “the digital divide is now a matter of life and death”.

People without digital access were severely affected during the COVID pandemic.
Mary Doer-Martin from Herz/Shutterstock

Read more: ‘Digital inclusion’ and closing the gap: How First Nations leadership is key to getting remote communities online

Not just a question of access.

As with most forms of exclusion, digital distribution works in a number of ways. It was originally defined as the difference between those who have access to computers and the Internet and those who do not. But research now shows that it’s not just an access problem.

Little or no access leads to low familiarity with digital technology, which then erodes trust, fuels disengagement, and ultimately creates an internalized sense of not being “digitally competent.”

As AI tools increasingly reshape our workplaces, classrooms and everyday lives, there is a danger that AI could deepen rather than narrow the digital divide.

Read more: Artificial intelligence holds great potential for both students and teachers – but only if used wisely.

The role of digital trust

To assess the impact of digital exclusion on people’s experiences with AI, we surveyed a representative sample of hundreds of Australian adults in late 2023. We asked them to rate their confidence with digital technology.

We found that digital trust was lower for women, older people, those with lower salaries, and those with less digital access.

We then asked those same people to comment on their hopes, fears, and expectations for AI. Across the board, the data showed that people’s perceptions, attitudes and experiences of AI were linked to how they felt about digital technology in general.

In other words, the more digitally confident people felt, the more positive they were about AI.

Read more: Giving AI direct control over anything is a bad idea – how it could cause us real harm.

To build truly comprehensive AI, these findings are important to consider for several reasons. First, they confirm that digital trust is not a shared privilege.

Second, they show us that digital inclusion is more than just access, or even one’s digital skills. How confident a person feels in their ability to interact with technology is also important.

Third, they show that if we do not combat existing forms of digital exclusion, they are likely to spread across perceptions, attitudes and experiences with AI.

Currently, many countries are making strides in their efforts to bridge the digital divide. So we must ensure that the rise of AI does not slow down these efforts, or worse, exacerbate the divide.

AI tools are already changing lives – but only if you’re on the right side of the ‘digital divide’.
Matthias Bertelli/Pixels

What should we expect from AI?

Although there are many associated risks, when deployed responsibly, AI can have significant positive impacts on society. Some of these may directly target inclusion issues.

For example, computer vision can track the speed of a tennis ball during a match, making it audible to blind or visually impaired spectators.

AI has been used to analyze online job postings to boost employment outcomes for underrepresented populations such as First Nation people. And, while they are still in the early stages of development, AI-powered chatbots can increase the accessibility and affordability of medical services.

Read more: To boost local employment, we need to match job opportunities to skills and abilities. Our new project does just that.

But this responsible AI future can only be delivered if we also address what keeps us digitally divided. To develop and use truly inclusive AI tools, we must first ensure that feelings of digital exclusion do not fade.

This means not only dealing with the practical issues of access and infrastructure, but also the knock-on effects on people’s level of engagement, competence and trust with technology.

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