AI and the digital divide
Dr Emma Stone reflects on Good Things Foundation's #AIFringe event on what the advancements in AI could mean for digitally excluded people.
On Friday 2nd November, nearly 100 people – many from community organisations in the National Digital Inclusion Network – came together online to explore the link between AI and the digital divide in the UK. The quality, energy, openness and breadth of discussion (both on the panel and in the chat) underlined how important it is for civil society to have a voice on AI; to be active in holding business and government to account; and also to be active in using and shaping AI for good – for equality and inclusion, and for everyone.
The chat panel was buzzing throughout – with people sharing links, ideas, experiences, doubts, questions – and lots of appetite to keep talking and start working together.
The key themes discussed:
- Putting people at the heart of AI – so that AI is about people, not tech. The need to create spaces – like our event, like the AI Fringe – which focus on people, community and society – and especially which focus on the experiences of people at the sharp end of digital, social and economic exclusion.
- Deep concerns about inherent bias in datasets on which AI depends. Digital exclusion compounds the invisibility already experienced by many women and by minoritised communities in datasets. This comes with a call to action to make data more inclusive and representative – and it is hard to see how we can square this circle without supporting everyone to access the internet if they choose.
- Power. Power and the central importance of collective voice, collective action, justice and being able to seek redress – especially with and by people already excluded. This brings with it a call to civil society organisations to hold governments and businesses accountable for the use of AI in people’s lives, and to get involved in shaping the rules and regulations.
- Emerging practice. Community organisations, like Cosmic, ClearCommunityWeb and Swansea MAD, are already helping people in their communities to learn about AI. This includes supporting people with low digital skills and confidence across all age groups. They’re covering what AI means, how AI is already part of our lives, how tools like ChatGPT can save time and stress. They are working out what ‘AI literacy’ means in practice; taking AI ‘use cases’ as a starting point for discussion and giving people the opportunity to try it out in safe environments. Their service users are building both critical understanding and practical skills as part of their ongoing work to help everyone benefit from digital.
- Ensuring AI isn’t only in the hands of those who already have more advantages in life. AI creates new opportunities to diversify the talent pool in the UK – providing people from more diverse backgrounds with opportunities to gain new skills. Such opportunities will be easily missed – on a broader societal level – without intentional action and investment.
- Civil society harnessing AI for good. There was excitement about exploring how AI can be used as a tool for activism – creating an AI for activism training course. Plus a clear call to action for civil society organisations to explore how AI can benefit them in their own work, and benefit the people they support. Let’s use AI to make it easier for people to use the internet, especially where people face additional barriers such as language, literacy, disability-related accessibility barriers too.
We started the hour with a quick poll to gauge how optimistic we were about AI’s potential to help fix the digital divide. A third of us were unsure; a quarter felt pessimistic; and the rest of us felt optimistic. By the end, my overriding emotion was less one of optimism or pessimism, and more one of excitement mixed with determination. Excitement to find so many people who are already thinking, learning, talking about, exploring, questioning and using AI – and doing that in ways that – actively and positively – include people with low digital skills and confidence. Determination to play an active part in using AI inclusively; enabling more people to learn about it, reach their own decisions and make their voices heard; and challenging business and government to make AI safer, more inclusive, more responsible.
AI is already part of our digital lives. As the UK’s leading digital inclusion charity – we need to play our role in ensuring AI helps to make good things happen, and close the digital divide.
A big thank you to our panellists:
- Helen Milner, OBE, Group CEO, Good Things Foundation
- Rachel Coldicutt, OBE, CEO, Promising Trouble / Careful Industries
- Caspar Kennerdale, MD, ClearCommunityWeb CIC
- Julie Hawker, MBE, Joint CEO, Cosmic
And to the organisers of the AI Fringe for taking the initiative!
If you missed our Good Things Foundation event on Inclusive AI: How can AI help to fix the digital divide – you can watch the recording below: