Technological advancements in recent decades have seen developing countries leapfrog stages of growth; by-passing expensive infrastructure investment. Smart phones are a prime example of this: connecting remote regions to telecoms networks and financial institutions without the need to develop landline infrastructure or open brick and mortar branches.

AI appears to offer significant benefits for developing nations. Various technologies are already being developed to promote productivity and wellbeing in the developing world. AI is being used to boost agricultural productivity and growth by analysing growing conditions and recommending strategies to produce the highest crop yield. Another application uses 3D modelling to analyse and advise on the wellbeing of babies in regions with little healthcare infrastructure.

There is no doubt that AI applications can positively impact the lives of people in the developing world, but the use of AI is not without its pitfalls, both economically and legally. Furthermore the ethical implications of commercial decisions in the developing world often attract the attention of the international media. Organisations should be aware of the reputational risk associated with perceived missteps, and the subsequent difficulty in repairing that reputation.

Economic implications: careful progress with a double edged sword

In terms of economics, the introduction of these new technologies can operate in a way that limit the benefit of, and may even negate their positive effects. Current AI applications often operate to replace unskilled or low skill workers in an economy. Where the economy in question has a large proportion of unskilled workers, this can be problematic. The infrastructural leapfrog of AI lays bare the often under-resourced education systems in these countries by requiring that a more educated and technically skilled workforce be produced in order to maintain economic productivity.

Of course, this may be another opportunity for technology to facilitate a leapfrog of infrastructure. AI could democratize access to education in the developing world and in some ways counteract the negative impact of chronic underfunding and the migration of educated and skilled individuals to more economically advanced regions. The educational applications include the potential to produce customised teaching materials, marking exercises and detecting cheating in exams. This could reproduce the benefits of small class sizes, or even allow the population access to a syllabus that they would be otherwise unable to study.

The potentially negative economic impact of AI in the developing world is a sobering reminder that the application of new technology should be carefully considered. If applied correctly, there is the potential for great benefit.

Privacy and data protection: safeguarding the oil of the digital economy

Legally, there are potential pitfalls for both developers and users of AI applications particularly relating to their rights and obligations in a legal environment which may not be particularly sophisticated, and may be subject to dramatic changes, both internally and externally.

A recent example highlighting the issues with rolling out advanced technologies in the developing world is Aadhaar: the government mandated digital identity platform in India. Aadhaar was initially developed in the context of low common understanding of digital privacy issues. It allows residents to access government and private services based on a unique identifier verified by the users’ biometrics. Vast amounts of data are collected by the platform; which reportedly has relatively little safeguards in the context of an uninformed population and an unsophisticated data privacy regime. Since its initial implementation, the platform has been subject to multiple hearings in the Supreme Court of India, the results of which have set limits on its operation. India’s impending Data Protection Act is expected to spell further trouble for Aadhaar’s functionality. This is a cautionary tale of the application of novel technology in a jurisdiction with a rapidly developing economy and legal system: the regulatory framework is also liable to change and develop quickly.

These data protection gaps are not unique to India. The introduction of GDPR has highlighted the stark differences in data privacy rights and protections of individuals in developed nations compared to developing countries. Jurisdictions with relatively lax privacy rules can be seen as a preferable environment for developing AI related technologies. Taking advantage of such jurisdictional loopholes raises obvious ethical considerations:

Is it appropriate to take advantage of these jurisdictional loopholes and use the data of individuals in a way that would be prohibited under GDPR? What if the AI application was being developed to serve the greater public good? What if, in order to serve this greater good it was accessing sensitive information relating to the relevant individuals? These questions are not new. The nature of globalisation has had multinational companies and individuals considering the ethics of their commercial relationship with the developing world for decades. While the answer to these questions is undoubtedly beyond the scope of this article, the ethical implications of commercial decisions ought to be taken into account in an environment where consumers are increasingly driven by ethics.

Intellectual property: the goose that laid the golden egg

Another legal consideration for developers is the protection and exploitation of their intellectual property rights. While individuals and companies in developed nations can avail themselves of extensive IP rights over creations relating to AI, the lack of rationalised intellectual property infrastructure in some developing countries can present a barrier as the lack of unified offices require the owner to jump through a multitude of complex regulatory hoops in various jurisdictions. There is the additional consideration of the ethics of exploiting intellectual property rights in the developing world, particularly in the context of healthcare and life-sciences. Historically, pharmaceutical companies have come under heavy scrutiny when trying to enforce their patent rights (particularly in the context of antiretroviral treatment for HIV). The WTO recently agreed to allow drug manufacturers in developing countries to produce or import generic versions of patented drugs.

As ever, the commercial opportunities in the developing world are vast, but carry risk and significant ethical considerations. In particular, developers should consider the implications of operating in a jurisdiction with a relatively underdeveloped legal system and the potential for legal frameworks and public policy to shift significantly due to both internal and external forces.

By Antonia Boyce, Bird & Bird