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Government AI Readiness Index: Equal implementation needed to reduce global inequalities


Katie Clancy

Program Management Officer, Networked Economies
Kai-Hsin Hung

Kai-Hsin Hung

Research Award Recipient, Networked Economies

Fernando Perini

Artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled systems already power activities like social media algorithms, autonomous vehicles, flight navigation systems, agricultural sensors, and disease diagnosis. There is also potential for them to accomplish much more in areas as diverse as healthcare delivery, agricultural production, and education. But without careful management, the risks of AI — including job losses and threats to human rights — could outweigh its potential.

The Government AI Readiness Index provides an assessment of the level of preparedness of governments to benefit from the potential of AI. Indicators and weighting criteria — for example, availability of open government data, level of digital skills and education, private sector capacity to benefit from AI, the existence of a national AI-related vision, and data protection and privacy laws —are applied to measure the capacity for wide-scale AI adoption in 194 countries and territories.

In 2019, high-income countries with robust AI strategies and investments dominated the Index’s top 10 positions. The countries with the highest ranking (Singapore ranked first, followed by the United Kingdom and Germany) have strong economies, good governance, and innovative private sectors. Overall, the Index indicated that governments in the Global North are in a better position to reap the rewards of AI than their Southern counterparts. If this imbalance of AI readiness persists, Southern countries will be at risk of becoming AI testing grounds where systems are misused. For instance, the growing use of facial recognition in Zimbabwe is happening without appropriate data protection policies, which is raising important ethical questions.

AI’s potential to accelerate progress on the Sustainable Development Goals can only be realized if it is well-managed by governments and like-minded actors. This year’s Government AI Readiness Index highlights the need for equal AI implementation to minimize its risk of widening global inequalities. IDRC is responding by partnering with committed local and global AI actors to support collaborative approaches that will close the AI implementation gap and position Canada as a global partner in advancing effective and responsible AI development.

Building vibrant AI ecosystems in the Global South

Although Africa stands to benefit the most from improving and investing in AI readiness, not a single sub-Saharan African country cracked the Index’s top 50 ranking. Latin America also struggles with structural inequalities and governance challenges that make future success with AI uncertain. There is an urgent need to support government AI-readiness in the Global South to ensure that countries are ready to foster and encourage AI innovation in the public and private sectors; support new regulatory structures and deepen existing ones to minimize potential harms; and consider how they will use AI-enabled technologies in their own policymaking and service delivery.  

Southern governments can and should ensure that AI technologies and their benefits are used for the common good by developing the right policies and working with appropriate institutions. What would future Government AI Readiness Indexes look like if more than 30 African countries developed their own AI strategies in the next five years? Imagine the possibilities if more than 400 PhDs from across Africa specialized in AI and machine learning to shape global conversations about how AI can be used to support human development. And what if universities, the private sector, and other public interest institutions invested one billion dollars towards AI to support the achievement of the African Union’s development blueprint Agenda 2063?

IDRC is harnessing the potential of these scenarios by developing proposals with the Latin American and African AI communities to reduce the gap in AI readiness. In recent regional workshops in Nairobi and Mexico City (a third regional workshop is planned for Asia in late 2019), fledgling AI ecosystems were evident and a number of emerging initiatives across the Global South have already set their sights on strengthening machine learning and AI research and talent. For example, sixty African and international experts at the Nairobi workshop collaboratively shaped an ambitious and pragmatic roadmap for the AI Network of Excellence in sub-Saharan Africa. The roadmap sets out a vision and agenda for development that identifies how African countries can address existing imbalances and strengthen AI readiness in government and policy spheres, in industry and applications, and in building emerging talent and skills.

Not only will these important steps alter the unequal picture presented in this year’s Index by setting the groundwork for AI implementation in Southern countries, they will also provide guidance for making the most of AI to achieve global development goals. As countries reflect on their current AI readiness and their goals for the future, it is important to question whether the use of AI will be a race to the top or a race to the bottom. With constant technological advances that disrupt our societies, it is important that we work as a global community to build a more inclusive and rights-based implementation of AI that will benefit human development.