Good and bad omens on AI

Mahmoud Mohieldin
Tuesday 6 Feb 2024

There are three steps the global south need to take in order to exploit the opportunities offered by advances in artificial intelligence.


Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) in recent years have been inspired by the requirements of the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution and its effects. However, the growing use and impacts of AI applications in war and peace and for development and destruction have drawn attention to AI as a revolution in its own right.

Before AI, a machine was just a helper that could get work done by performing certain routine tasks with greater speed and efficiency. With AI, machines have acquired the abilities to perceive, to learn, and even to behave like human beings.

AI has ushered in a paradigm shift from standard processes of mechanisation and automation in production to new modes of component design, problem-solving, innovation and economic development. It is not only affecting the labour market, as its impacts extend to security, politics, systems of government, electoral processes, and culture as well.

In a previous article, I mentioned that the recent Global Risks Report issued by the World Economic Forum (WEF) found that the greatest risk today is of misinformation and that AI contributes to this by facilitating impersonation and identity theft, the manipulation of information, and the hacking of decision-making systems that affect the economy, politics, security, and society.

AI has also complicated cybersecurity and made it increasingly difficult to safeguard the information systems that control vital facilities such as water, electricity, energy, and transport, along with the world’s financial institutions.

In his book Four Battlegrounds: Power in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, US author Paul Scharre, a defence expert at the Pentagon, quotes Russian President Vladimir Putin as saying that “artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia, but for all humankind. It comes with colossal opportunities, but also threats that are difficult to predict. Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.”

He also quotes Chinese President Xi Jinping who said that “Science and technology has become the main battleground of global power rivalry.”

Analyses produced by leading international organisations have explored AI’s potential impacts on the economy. Most agree that it can contribute to increasing the efficiency of production and reducing costs, thereby increasing economic growth and capital accumulation. However, they also found that it could impact negatively on income distribution. An International Monetary Fund (IMF) study released in January on the effects of AI on labour markets found that 60 per cent of jobs in the advanced economies may be impacted by AI. By contrast, “AI exposure” in emerging markets and low-income countries may come to 40 per cent and 26 per cent, respectively.

As the study observes, this means that the developing countries risk fewer immediate disruptions from AI. It also says that the positive economic impacts of increased productivity are almost equal to the adverse effects on the labour market through the loss of jobs and decreased demand for labour.

Much will hinge on how prepared countries are for AI in four main areas: human-capital and labour-market policies; innovation and economic integration; regulation; and ethics. The IMF has developed an AI Preparedness Index that ranks 125 countries in terms of their preparation for AI. Singapore comes first and is followed by the US, Denmark, Japan, and Britain.

US economist Glenn Hubbard, former chair of the US Council of Economic Advisers to the President, considers AI to be the greatest source of optimism for economic growth in the US. His view is backed by the Nobel Laureate economist Mike Spence and by James Manyka, a distinguished fellow at Stanford University’s Human-Centred Artificial Intelligence Institute, who co-authored an article in the US journal Foreign Affairs saying that generative AI could add $4 trillion annually to the global economy.

This is equivalent to the entire German economy, the world’s fourth largest. The US, the two authors say, will begin to reap the benefits of increased productivity thanks to AI by the end of this decade. The gains on the supply side should work to reduce inflation.

Interestingly, the last article by the late former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger appeared in the same magazine in October 2023. Co-authored with Graham Allison, it discussed the dark side of AI: its military uses and its role in the arms race. The article stressed the need for cooperation between the US and China in averting a third world war that could unleash weapons far more terrifying than the atomic bombs that the US dropped on Japan in 1945 in the last act of mass destruction in World War II.

The IMF study suggests that more highly educated, diversely skilled, and younger people will be able to manoeuvre into job opportunities in areas that take advantage of the potential of the AI revolution. The victims, on the other hand, will be the less educated, the less skilled, and older workers.

There is only one way for the countries of the Global South to address the AI challenge. This is to master the latest developments in the field and exploit its innovations in order to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), progress, and prosperity, as well as to maintain peace and defend themselves and their resources.

In an article I published in Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in October 2019 called “Digital Feudalism: The Cushion of the World’s New Economy,” I discussed three steps developing economies including the members of the Arab world needs to take in the framework of a comprehensive policy for progress and development in the digital age.

The first is to implement an integrated policy and regulatory systems for data management, data security, and data-protection rights, including the individual’s moral and financial rights related to the use of their personal information. The second is to develop the information technology (IT) infrastructure for digital networks and cybersecurity and to invest in expanding bandwidth capacities and speeds through partnerships between the government and private sectors.

The third and most important step is to invest in human resources through education, training, and awareness-raising with a particular focus on mastering IT and AI technologies. Without this, the new industrial and technological revolutions will come and go and leave us in their wake, as has unfortunately happened before.

If we are not careful, our part in them will be limited to coping and chronicling their impacts, while other countries progress towards the realisation of their goals and aspirations.


This article appeared in Arabic in Wednesday’s edition of Asharq Al-Awsat.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 8 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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