AI and sustainable development

The present and future applications of artificial intelligence and digital technologies must be carefully adapted to the situation of each country

AI and sustainable development

Used responsibly, artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to boost a sustainable transition to a more resource-efficient livability. Sustainable development is crucial to humanity. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown the urgent need for digital technologies, the need for a green transition and AI-based models to address public health management challenges that a global pandemic poses.

Humans establish various links to interact and reason while sharing experiences in multiple spaces. The AI encompasses a large variety of sub-fields, including machine learning, software technology having the capability of including audio, visual, textual, and tactile input, decision-making, prediction, automatic knowledge and pattern recognition from data, interactive communication and logical reasoning.

It is understood to have the potential for positive impacts on 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations that are the building blocks of the 2030 agenda for sustainable development.

The clearly defined focus of the SDGs is on society, economy and the environment, the three main pillars of sustainable development. In the economic dimension, AI focuses on sustainable human development at an economic level and looks at the prosperity and welfare of the individuals in terms of poverty alleviation, food sustenance, health coverage and technological development.

In the social dimension, it concentrates on sustainable development in terms of equality, education and employment, gender justice and prosperity of the communities. It pertains as well to the preservation of the environment and the management of its key resources to safeguard sustainability in the environmental dimension, including water, clean energy, responsible production and consumption, natural environment centred on climate, land and underwater ecosystems.

Enabled by the availability of big data, computational ability and efficient algorithms, AI is beginning to live up to its promises of delivering real value. The science and technology sector is spearheading the advancement and opening up of AI opportunities. Google, IBM and Amazon are among the leading companies driving the scientific and technological development.

AI is likely to be resource-saving and labour-saving even in the long run. High-income competitive countries, like China and the US, have experienced a sufficiently deep economic transformation for their comparative advantage to be decisive. They may be among the winners in the AI revolution.

Moreover, it is possible to link donors, recipients and SDGs to understand how donors tailor their aid by regions and countries. For example, France’s contribution varies largely across the regions. France’s support to infrastructure and cities’ development largely takes place in Africa. It could potentially benefit SDG 9 and SDG 11.

According to the WHO, health is defined as a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. AI tools promote healthy nourishment, exercise and mental health habits. Hungary has developed an AI-based dietary menu planning and counselling software that takes Hungarian patients’ needs into consideration, follows up-to-date dietetic guidelines and, in particular, produces output.

AI applied by experts to simulate health of the water bodies and in combination with satellite data on weather forecasts and real-time imagery of river basins, helped policymakers to make better-informed decisions for water conservation and usage.

AI growth in Pakistan is gaining ground. The national policy has created conditions in which private sector enterprises have gained considerable influence and agency within regional development networks.

According to the World Bank, agriculture is the source of livelihood in areas where poverty is more prevalent. AI application robots can now help farmers to harvest crops and suggest the best ways for farmers to grow different crops. The Decentralized AI Alliance reported in 2020 that AI can address the problem of poverty by improving farming, soil cultivation for growing crops and the rearing of livestock as a way of providing food.

In terms of overall progress, there is a rising number of countries that have already created a comprehensive AI plan. China, France, and as of recently, the USA have comprehensive strategies that cover initiatives to conduct research and development and show the impact on the training of workers competent in AI. A concern China and the United States have over the development and control of 5G technology is an extreme but revealing example of the global AI competition situation.

The AI-augmented reality in educational systems aims to create virtual learning platforms to offer educational opportunities not only for people with limited availability for physical on-site learning but also for underprivileged areas and women in developing countries. This allows the youth to grow with AI in the coming years to adopt solution-based businesses.

Economists are also becoming increasingly aware of the importance of regional heterogeneity. Due to high population pressure most of the South Asian cities are removing their tree cover, covering open spaces, and overusing water sources, and clean air which significantly affect the quality of life of their dwellers. It is now widely accepted that the major driving force of the fourth Industrial Revolution is AI. Hence, it is high time for South Asia to harness artificial intelligence and big data for urban planning and monitoring, smart cities, precision agriculture and food production.

Robust data infrastructure and technological readiness of South Asia are the major prerequisites of AI and big data solutions against pressing urban issues. The readiness and the level of advantage depends on how a country is performing on the technological readiness indicator (TRI) produced by the World Economic Forum.

In 2017, Bangladesh and Nepal performed better compared to their neighbours, signifying a better opportunity to adopting AI and big data solutions in addressing urban issues. TRI was largely missing in Bhutan and Sri Lanka. They are therefore far behind in harnessing the advantages of AI. The TRI scores of India and Sri Lanka were not very high in 2017. Pakistan had made 11 percent more progress on its TRI in 2017 than in 2008. The situation suggests that there is enough room for South Asian countries, including Pakistan, to advance data infrastructure and technological readiness to avail optimum benefits of AI.

AI growth is gaining ground in Pakistan. The national policy has created conditions in which private sector enterprises have gained considerable influence and agency within regional development networks. Private education institutions in Pakistan have taken advantage of these favourable political conditions to develop, expand and apply AI technologies to specific areas of extra-curricular provisions.

Advances in artificial intelligence technology and innovative use of drones to encounter climate change at a large scale, restoration projects such as the Ten Billion Tree Tsunami are helping restore ecosystems and improve natural capital. They are also creating new jobs.

Pakistan’s protected areas initiative will create almost 7,000 long-term jobs. AI machine learning algorithms are ensuring that aerial seeding is cost-effective and can cover a large area over a short period.

AI has shown great promise. It is recommended for governments and academia in emerging economies, development institutions and other organisations working towards achievement of the SDGs.

It is clear that AI applications and digital technologies must be carefully adapted to the situation and characteristics of each country and coordinated with other actions being considered. In an era increasingly characterised by artificial intelligence, the workforce must be equipped with innovative skills needed for the future of work.

More specifically, well-researched and well-developed tools are needed to measure the capabilities of innovation to enhance collaboration between universities and industries.

The writer is based in Islamabad

AI and sustainable development