Small States Can Chart a New Course for AI

The rise of small, wealthy, and technology-focused countries investing in emerging markets creates local expertise that benefits everyone.

By Xische Editorial, November 26, 2018

Source:Doyata/ Shutterstock


Major advancements in artificial intelligence are not normally thought about in the context of colonialism. To be sure, geopolitics factor heavily as the world’s superpowers’ rush to weaponise AI innovations. Yet the legacy of colonialism is mostly hidden from the debate. Given our interconnected world, however, outsized Western influence in AI research and innovation reveals unsettling neo-colonial faultlines. As such, smaller countries must recognise the corrosive effect of inequitable investment and take steps to prevent it. Thankfully, there is a path forward.

As Western companies seek out new growth opportunities and look to collect more data, they are turning their sights on developing countries. Lacking the necessary infrastructure and resources to create homegrown technology, foreign companies are able to effectively take over the tech sectors of emerging markets. It is a repeat of old colonial trade patterns where a country would export, say, sugar only to import candy. There is another model developing in the East.  China, one of the world leaders in AI, is able to innovate using data collected from its own citizens thanks to a large population and tightly controlled internet. The Chinese don’t have to scour the world in search of new markets; they have more than enough material at home.

Western companies don’t have it so easy. While major internet giants such as Google have ample amounts of data to draw from, several Silicon Valley startups have had to look beyond America’s borders for data and labour. This is not limited to AI research. As social media platforms such as Facebook look for growth potential, they are investing in emerging markets in myriad ways including schemes to provide free internet access and smartphones as long as users are hooked into their network.

Finding a solution to this problem requires a model whereby wealthier countries can invest in emerging markets to create local technology that benefits all parties instead of only one. The rise of small, wealthy, and technology-focused countries such as the UAE presents a golden opportunity.

The business model of Samasource, an American company focused on AI using foreign labour and data, highlights one way to put these ideas into action. Instead of paying high wages at home, the San Francisco company employs poor Kenyans in Nairobi to perfect its AI software by carrying out labour-intensive tasks such as manually entering information for self-driving cars. The business model, as profiled in a recent story for the BBC, is an admirable one. On the surface everyone wins, but the reality is much darker.

Samasource’s model, which is replicated across Africa by other companies, doesn’t help the Kenyan economy grow in the long term. Essentially, Samasource has outsourced labour to perfect its own product, the economic benefits of which will remain in the United States. While a handful of people have jobs as a result of the company’s expansion into Kenya, these jobs will not fundamentally lift the Kenyan technology ecosystem because the company is owned by Americans. It is a modern-day form of extraction economics – but there is a remedy.

If the global tech community looks beyond the long arm of global superpowers like the United States, there are many investors with a genuine interest in building local technology without the exploitation of data and labour extraction. Indeed, looking to small states is a surefire way to build a transformative global technology ecosystem.

Free from the legacy of colonialism and with no interest beyond return on investment, the UAE is a natural leader. It enjoys close ties with many emerging market countries and, given its close proximity to fast-growing population centres in South Asia and Africa, it is perfectly positioned to be a nexus point for the emerging world’s next generation of tech pioneers. The UAE is also endowed with significant investment capital, excellent infrastructure, and the ability to draw on the Middle East’s growing pool of coders and programmers. UAE investors don’t have any interest in controlling countries either; they want a return on investment and to see the expansion of home-grown technology sectors.

Through the UAE’s healthy embrace of technology, the country can help diversify the global technology industry. As world superpowers compete for more powerful AI systems, the need for a non-aligned technology movement between small states is critical for the equitable development of the industry. This notion is especially important given global growth patterns. The next great innovation in technology will likely come from the emerging world since more than 85% of the global population lives outside of the West. Never before has the so-called non-West been better equipped with the tools to build up their own societies.

While these ideas might sound altruistic, the rise of small states in technology is about the equitable development of the industry and, ultimately, the innovation race. The power of countries like the US and China is not in question, and they will continue to lead. But the ability of developing countries to partner without the burden of colonial baggage will help facilitate a climate in which the next great innovation will take place. The UAE can lead this change.