We live in the age of artificial intelligence: how much did Latin America advance in relation to it?
Time for Latin American economies to double in size (a full circle represents 100 years). AI paves the way for faster economic growth
Autonomous, facial recognition programs, social networks that offer content to suit the client are just some of the applications of artificial intelligence (AI) that invaded our daily lives.
AI is an area of computing oriented to the development of systems that can be taught to think and act “intelligently” in specific contexts. Driven by the increase in data generation, the processing capacity of computers and the expansion of the Internet around the world, not only is it here to stay, it is already changing our lives.
Countries such as the United States, England, Japan and China have already understood the strategic role that the area will play in the near future in economic, scientific and social development, and are trying to invest heavily in the field.
It is estimated that AI can contribute up to 15.7 billion dollars to the global economy in 2030. In view of this enormous market potential, large technology companies, such as Google, Facebook and Microsoft, are entering the field race to develop the best applications in the area. The number of patents in the sector is booming.
Although much of this movement around AI is occurring in the north of the globe – where conditions are more compatible with the size of the enterprise – there is no denying the enormous potential of the area for the development of the global south, and particularly for Latin America.
According to a study carried out by Accenture, a consulting firm in the technology sector, the IA has the potential to increase annual growth rates in Latin America up to one percentage point in 2035. Financial services, commodity industries, wholesale trade and public services would be, according to the company, the sectors most benefited by the development of this technology in the region.
In addition to these niches, applications promise to take advantage of scientific discoveries, improve medical diagnoses, increase agricultural productivity and even balance access to education. But how to transform all that potential into a reality?
The truth is that the current scenario is one of great limitations for the development of AI in Latin America and in developing countries in general. For starters, there is not enough investment. But that is far from the only problem. There are no databases, research infrastructure and networks; lack of trained personnel and articulation with the industry.
To reap the fruits of the boiling artificial intelligence, and not to be left behind in the scientific and technological race once again, Latin America needs to run. And fast. There is so much to do!
Amidst the limitations, initiatives based on artificial intelligence begin to emerge with more vigor in Latin America, indicating a greater recent interest in the field in some of their countries. Let’s see some of them.
At the end of February, the Advanced Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2) was launched in Brazil, with the aim of promoting, through collaboration between the academic and private sectors, advances in the field of AI in the country. The idea is that the academic environment contributes with the experience in basic research, and the private sector, in turn, identifies challenging problems and gives the financial support to be addressed. Without fixed headquarters, the AI2 will work in shared work spaces in the participating institutions, connected by a videoconference service.
At the moment, eight San Pablo universities are part of the consortium, as well as five startups and eight national and international companies, including Intel, Petrobras and IBM, which is also preparing to set up a research center in Brazil. The initiative is open to the integration of other partners, from Brazil and abroad, and has the potential to grow and become an AI reference network in Latin America.
In the framework of the AI for Earth program, Microsoft finances various projects that combine artificial intelligence and sustainability in Latin America. Launched in July 2017, at the end of 2018, the initiative included four Latin American institutions with resources for the development of projects in one of its areas of action: agriculture, water, biodiversity and climate change.
In Argentina, the Patagonian Institute for the Study of Continental Ecosystems will use AI to measure the impact of current and future land use on water quality in the region. The Humbolt Center in Nicaragua will provide forest regions communities with some technical and scientific tools based on AI to defend their assets and common territories.
The University of Columbia, in Puerto Rico, is using AI to measure the health of forests damaged by storms and hurricanes and assess how long they take to recover.
In Mexico, for its part, the Intercultural Center for the Study of Deserts and Oceans is supported by an AI model to analyze the effects of the media on public perception of climate change and, with this, aims to help governments to create adaptation strategies.
In addition to the detailed ones, there are more actions underway in Latin America, which contemplate other sectors and applications of the AI, some more and others less consolidated. In the health area, for example, some intelligent technologies are being used in the diagnosis of diseases, in the forecast and in the control of epidemics, and even to reduce the stay of patients in hospitals, which helps to optimize the expenses with public health.
In the sector of public safety and natural disaster management, there are also projects under development, but still very incipient. The expectation is that with the rise of the issue in Latin America, more consistent AI initiatives will emerge in these and other areas.
Between benefits, limitations and risks
Despite the great potential of artificial intelligence and the expectations generated around it, it is important to highlight that, like all high-impact technologies, in a capitalist world, marked by marked social and economic inequalities, the development of AI it involves a series of risks and inspires care, as the document elaborated by the Center for Research for International Development (IDRC) on AI and human development warns.
The unethical use of intelligent technologies, or the unequal distribution of their uses and benefits, can reinforce injustices and prejudices, threaten jobs and favor the manipulation of data for obscure purposes, such as the use of algorithms to win elections.
The lack of institutional capacity to protect people’s rights – in terms of privacy, for example – can also be a problem, especially in developing countries. These risks and limitations should not impede the progress of these technologies in Latin America, but it is necessary that these nations find an ethical, inclusive and safe way to promote their development.
Thus, the implementation of AI in the region requires coordinated efforts and permanent monitoring. In the first place, it is necessary to increase the technical capacity of the area, with investment in research, in the training of human resources and in the installation of infrastructure. It is also necessary to identify and prioritize local interests, instead of replicating the applications of developed nations. In the field of research, we must invest in impact evaluations and risk studies to understand what works, for whom and in what contexts.
The proper regulation of the sector is also fundamental to protect individuals from the misuse of technologies arising from AI. It is important that the legislation confers responsibility and penalizes the taking of erroneous, biased or discriminatory decisions, and establishes mechanisms of reparation. The developed countries are already mobilizing in that direction.
Finally, it is important that society is involved and prepared to discuss and decide on the new (and current) applications of AI, which includes non-trivial issues and are far from being purely scientific. Part of the development of the field will depend on how people see their costs and benefits. In Latin America, we are still far from a fruitful debate on this subject.