In an era where AI-enabled systems already power a broad set of activities such as social media algorithms, autonomous vehicles, flight navigation systems, agricultural sensors, disease diagnosis, it is only poised to become ever-more pervasive. However, “AI can either accelerate the achievement of the [Sustainable Development] goals or entrench existing gaps,” says IDRC President Jean Lebel in a recent article.
With the right policies and institutional arrangements, governments can ensure that the benefits of disruptive technologies like artificial intelligence are shared broadly and help transform the way that public services are delivered and support better governance. The 2019 Government AI Readiness Index provides the first global panorama covering 194 countries and territories on governments’ preparedness to take advantage of the benefits of AI in their operations and delivery of public services.
The 2019 ranking weighs several indicators for measuring government AI readiness with a focus on the responsible and ethical use of AI, weighting criteria such as the state of data protection and privacy laws and whether or not a national AI-related vision exists. The Index considers the availability of open government data, digital skills and education, and private sector capability to the scope and quality of digital public services, among others.
This year’s Index now includes in-depth analysis of AI readiness in regional contexts from regional experts. Regions and countries with strong economies, good governance, and innovative private sectors ranked higher on the Index. Governments in the Global North are still better positioned to reap the benefits of AI than their Southern counterparts, but there is an opportunity to address the imbalance. Otherwise, the differences in AI readiness between governments may increase the risk that certain countries could become testing grounds, where AI systems could be misused, and weaken the opportunities to use AI in support of the delivery for the common good and public welfare.
High-income countries with robust AI strategies and investments dominated the Top 10 spots of the Index. Singapore comes first, followed by the United Kingdom. Germany is third. Nordic countries – Finland, Sweden, and Denmark – secured top spots. Canada came in seventh place, ahead of France. Although Canada was the first country to announce a national AI strategy in early 2017 with a five-year $125-million plan, the index highlights opportunities for Canada to further invest in other dimensions of AI readiness.
Vibrant Artificial Intelligence Ecosystems in the Global South
In contrast, Africa is the region positioned to benefit the most from improving and investing in AI readiness. No African countries came in the Top 50 with Kenya being edge out at 52nd. AI readiness in governments may have differing impacts in Africa than countries in the Top 10 such as Singapore. While the risk of AI-related automation of existing jobs in Africa is lower – for now – due to a larger informal sector, nevertheless AI may present new challenges and opportunities for fostering development in Africa. Governments in Africa will need to be ready to foster and encourage AI innovation through public and private sectors, to support new regulatory structures and deepen existing ones that will be needed to minimize potential harms, such as in health systems, and to consider how they will use AI-enabled technologies in their own policy making and service delivery.
While Kenya is the only country out of the 46 sub-Saharan African states that has an AI-specific taskforce that is working towards a national strategy, the outlook for AI in Africa is positive. South Africa and Uganda recently announced the creation of their National Taskforces on emerging technologies. The development of AI is advancing at a rapid pace in sub-Saharan Africa. There is an important opportunity to support Government readiness in AI in order to ensure that countries from Africa are positioned to benefit from the potential of AI in their economies, health systems, service delivery and more. “African governments can capitalize on the late-mover advantage” to create smarter AI-related policies and institutional arrangements says Isaac Rutenberg, Director of the Centre for Intellectual Property and Information Technology Law (CIPIT) and a contributor to the Index report.
Latin America’s AI future is still uncertain due to structural inequalities and governance challenges like weak privacy laws needed to enable the formulation of a clear AI policy and ethical framework for the region. Mexico leads this region’s rankings followed by Uruguay, Chile, and Brazil. Local AI capacity needs to be further strengthened and work closely with the public sector as there is an important disconnect between the AI community and the public sector. Across this region, we need “more investment tailored for the Latin American context and the right ethical and policy framework to kickstart an inclusive AI development cycle,” says Fabrizio Scrollini, Executive Director of the Latin American Open Data Initiative (ILDA).
Over the last two years, the interest in informal developer communities, the private sector, and researchers point to the growth of a vibrant and diverse AI ecosystem in the Global South. Similarly, as the Index uses secondary data, relying on traditional metrics of counting the number of patent applications and scientific publications on machine learning may underestimate the level and activity of innovation across middle and low-income countries.
The AI Network of Excellence in sub-Saharan Africa
To reduce the gap in AI readiness, IDRC is developing proposals with the Latin American and African AI communities. In recent regional workshops in Nairobi and Mexico City, the start of is a vibrant AI ecosystem was evident, with a number of emerging initiatives already across the Global South aiming to strengthen machine learning and artificial intelligence research and talent. A third regional workshop is planned for Asia in late 2019.
For example, in Nairobi, sixty African and international experts at the workshop collaboratively shaped a new ambitious and pragmatic roadmap for the AI Network of Excellence in sub-Saharan Africa. The roadmap sets out a vision and the start of a new AI research and innovation agenda for development on how African countries can address existing imbalances and strengthen AI readiness – in government and policy spheres, in industry and applications, and in building emerging talent and skills.
What would happen if there are more than 30 African countries developing their own AI strategies in the next five years? Imagine if more than 400 PhDs in AI and machine learning from across Africa were innovating and engaging in shaping global conversations about how AI can be used to support human development. And what if universities, the private sector, and other public interest institutions invest a billion dollars in collaborations on AI to support the achievement of African Union’s development blueprint Agenda 2063? This would certainly be important steps to change the unequal picture presented in this year’s index.
AI’s profound potential for accelerating progress on the Sustainable Development Goals can only happen if it is well managed by governments and like-minded actors. This year’s Government AI Readiness Index highlights the need for more equal implementation to close AI’s potential to widen global inequalities. With committed local AI community actors and global partners like Sweden, IDRC is looking to support collaborative approaches with researchers, enterprises, start-ups, policymakers, and civil societies to close this gap and make Canada a global partner in advancing effective and responsible development of AI for a more inclusive and sustainable world.
To download the Government AI Readiness Index 2019 Report, click here.
The commentary article was written by Kai-Hsin Hung, Katie Clancy, and Fernando Perini. This commentary article is the extensive version of the original Perspectives article published on IDRC’s website.
The Government AI Readiness Index 2019 is produced by Oxford Insights with support from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). We would like to thank all the regional experts who contributed to this report.