In his annual letter this year, Bill Gates predicted that the United States is “eighteen to twenty four months away from significant levels of AI use by the general population” and that African countries are just a year or so behind that. The pace of AI development is breathtaking, with generative AI tools like ChatGPT forecast to have an adoption curve steeper than the smartphone. However, while many of us explore this new frontier of tech, much of the world is yet to even come online.
In the United States alone, one in three people don’t use the internet at speeds fast enough to use Zoom, never mind the latest AI-enabled technologies. Elsewhere, the digital divide is greater still, with 63 percent of people living in African countries lacking any internet access at all.
Like every digital breakthrough before it—the invention of the web, the roll-out of broadband, the mobile revolution—the opportunities enabled by AI leaves those without internet access further behind just by staying where they are. Without urgent action to close the digital divide and promote equitable access to AI technologies, billions of people around the world will be excluded from the benefits of this technological revolution while suffering its disruptions.
The future of work
Plenty of ink has been spilled about how AI is transforming industry, revolutionizing product categories, and creating entirely new career paths. But if you’ve never been online, have no experience using digital platforms, and are yet to develop core digital skills, emerging jobs like “Prompt Engineer” and “Applied AI Software Developer” are well out of reach, even before you take into account that 80 percent of jobs in the United States are posted online only. And while you won’t see the upside, you’ll certainly feel the pain, as automation and AI systems replace human roles and eliminate traditional jobs. As the William Gibson quote goes, “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.”
Improving health for all
Gates’ letter describes how AI could literally save lives by improving healthcare in areas like treatment of high-risk pregnancies, assessing HIV risk, managing medical health records, and so much more. Given this incredible potential, leading philanthropists like Gates must urgently help ensure these opportunities are available to all—not just those who can afford a high-speed internet connection and devices capable of using AI technology. Those without internet access already receive worse health care, have higher costs, and live shorter lives; that’s why the U.S. government has labeled broadband as a “super social determinant of health.” As we move towards AI-enabled individualized medicine and with AI-diagnosis breaking new ground, healthcare inequities will only increase, with those on the wrong side of the digital divide missing out.
Closing the homework gap
Many years ago, I wrote my thesis on the importance of individualized education, which is why, like Gates, I’ve been blown away by the potential of AI tutors personalized to a student’s location and learning level. And yet these potentially game-changing educational tools are out of reach for the 1.3 billion children who don’t have home internet and are already struggling with the “homework gap.” A joint World Bank, UNICEF, UNESCO report reveals that the students who lost a year or more of education during the pandemic, partly due to lack of access to the internet and remote learning, now risk losing $17 trillion in lifetime earnings. Consider the possibilities if young people who have been denied a proper education gain access to a new generation of learning tools alongside quality primary and secondary education.
Global equality depends on digital equity
We’re living through an extraordinary moment. What felt like near-magic when ChatGPT debuted a year ago is already starting to feel ordinary—at least for those of us with the internet access, devices, and skills to use it. As the capabilities—and risks—of AI technology continue to evolve at a rapid pace through 2024, those without the digital tools to participate in this revolution will fall further behind. Ultimately the digital economy only exists for those who are connected to it.
To those who believe that connecting the unconnected is a problem the market will solve, I have a few billion reasons why you’re wrong. 2024 marks the 35th anniversary of the invention of the World Wide Web. Large incumbent telecommunications operators have had over three decades to get internet access to everyone but have failed because it’s not in their business models to do so. By focusing on these big incumbents rather than smaller, more community-focused ISPs, government strategies for expanding internet access have likewise fallen short. 2.7 billion people without internet access can’t wait any longer.
Closing the global digital divide will take hundreds of billions of dollars. This calls for new sources of capital—public finance, philanthropic funds, commercial capital, and impact investments—working in combination to build the digital infrastructure needed to power a fairer, more productive 21st century. That is why Connect Humanity, the non-profit impact fund I co-founded, is pioneering blended finance approaches to invest in community-focused broadband networks that can sustainably connect the unconnected.
As Gates writes, “If we make smart investments now, AI can make the world a more equitable place. It can reduce or even eliminate the lag time between when the rich world gets an innovation and when the poor world does.” As foundations, governments, companies, and investors alike sprint to develop AI strategies, funds, and products, one of those smart investments must be ensuring everyone has an affordable high-speed internet connection and the tools needed to participate fully in an AI-enabled digital society. Otherwise, AI will not just become the newest digital divide: it will scale it exponentially.
Jochai Ben-Avie is the Co-Founder and CEO of Connect Humanity.