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When it Comes to Impacting Your Community, There is Nothing Artificial about Artificial Intelligence

by | Feb 1, 2024 | Community Development

Last July, the governments of Canada and Alberta announced a groundbreaking initiative – a nearly $100 million investment to bring high-speed internet to over 10,000 homes in rural and remote communities of the province. “Access to reliable, high-speed internet will provide better education, health, and economic opportunities, and will ensure that rural and Indigenous communities are full partners in Alberta’s growing economy,” declared Nate Glubish, Alberta’s minister of Technology and Innovation.

The Transformative Power of AI in Rural Communities

He is, of course, correct. Being able to plug into a decent internet connection is a game changer for communities, not just in my home province of Alberta but around the world. Unfortunately, it’s a game too many rural communities have been unable to join.

Yet, joining is more important than ever.

What Glubish didn’t spell out specifically is the importance of high-speed internet to a technology that is transforming life in urban areas and will likely be even more transformative for rural communities: artificial intelligence, or AI. AI is a controversial topic, to say the least.

AI might warm the hearts of the technologically savvy but it sends chills up the spines of just about everyone else. For those who embrace the technology that allows computers to use algorithms working at the speed of light to collate massive amounts of information and mimic human intelligence, AI is the next step in our online evolution. It can make our life easier and more entertaining. AI can play chess and operate vehicles. It can help us become more organized, better informed and even assist with our writing (but I assure you, not with this column).

However, there are equally abundant drawbacks, red flags, and pure dystopian fears that I will get to shortly.

AI is like the internet itself, a tool that is sometimes misused but has improved life for so many people the world over. Seriously, how many of us would want to go back to the pre-internet days of dial-up telephones, waiting in line at the bank and renting movies at Blockbuster?

AI Revolutionizing Healthcare in Rural Canada

One crucial area that AI can improve life dramatically in rural areas is healthcare. Dr. Alex Wong, the Canada Research Chair for Artificial Intelligence, said not only is AI making healthcare work more efficient everywhere, rural Canadians will see “an even greater impact” because AI is so good at sorting through massive amounts of medical information to help stretched-thin healthcare professionals diagnose diseases more accurately and quickly, no matter where the patient happens to be.

“With their expertise having seen this big worldview of thousands, to hundreds of thousands, to millions of different patients, it’s able to [take] that knowledge and bring it to rural areas to help improve diagnosis and improve treatment,” said Dr. Wong in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation last October.

AI’s Positive Impacts Across Sectors

Artificial intelligence is helping farmers grow crops more efficiently, reduce waste and thus make more money. It is improving education by motivating students through tailor-made lessons online. Through the ability to comb through massive amounts of information and images, AI can help with the management of natural resources, the monitoring of the environment, and warn communities about looming disasters like floods and wildfires.

AI in Local Governance: Efficiency and Cost-Effectiveness

For local government, AI can help relieve staff of mundane tasks like combing through files, answering routine questions on the phone, and filling out forms. It can also collate and organize information in seconds, offer real time support to citizens, allow for targeted outreach to specific areas of a community, and offer easier connections with the community as a whole.

In April 13, 2021, Forbes published an article entitled, “We Need to Teach AI in Rural America” that touted the value of rural residents learning to use artificial intelligence: “Digital skills can be learned without having to move to a city. There are hundreds of tools for people to develop AI and data science skills from home; they just need access to these tools. On top of this, jobs in AI, unlike manual labor jobs, are well suited to remote working. Remote AI jobs could contribute greatly to the economy of rural areas, indirectly helping other local businesses. Allowing people to work high-paying jobs right from their communities will grow their local economies.”

Artificial intelligence can make your community governance more efficient and cost-effective. But what should you do with the increased efficiency and money saved? An article in the Harvard Business Review, way back in 2018, had some sage advice.

Balancing Efficiency and Human Touch in Governance

“When the work of public servants can be done in less time, a government might reduce its staff numbers, and return money saved to taxpayers – and I am sure that some governments will pursue that option,” wrote the author, Emma Martinho-Truswell. “But it’s not necessarily the one I would recommend. Governments could instead choose to invest in the quality of its services. They can re-employ workers’ time towards more rewarding work that requires lateral thinking, empathy, and creativity – all things at which humans continue to outperform even the most sophisticated AI program.” 

I agree completely with that sentiment, and have advocated for it time and again. Money saved through innovation and collaboration might be better utilized in improving the community to help it attract more businesses and people, which will grow your economy and give you further resources to improve your community. The default of lowering taxes through innovation and cooperation is not always the right move since it can leave you with the status quo in a world that is ever changing and adapting.

As I have said about online technology, it must be a tool we control, not the other way around. Community is about connection. AI can help enhance those connections and communication, but as the Harvard article points out it cannot replace the creativity and empathy of humans. 

Even if it works well, it has the potential to undo what community is all about if we use AI to communicate instead of really talking to each other. 

The Ethical Landscape of AI: Navigating the Complexities

While embracing the positives of AI, we must be aware of the negatives.Because it depends on scraping immense amounts of data from the internet, AI can become invasive and intrude on people’s privacy. The data could be misused inadvertently or even on purpose. AI can create a dependence on technology where we let machines make our decisions. Because the misuse of AI is such a threat, national governments and industry are taking steps to control how the technology is used to protect citizens and mitigate the dangers.

On Oct. 4, the White House published a document entitled “Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights: Making Automated Systems Work for the American People.” On Oct. 30, President Joe Biden issued an Executive Order to establish new standards for AI safety that intends, for example, to “Protect Americans from AI-enabled fraud and deception by establishing standards and best practices for detecting AI-generated content and authenticating official content.”

On Nov. 15, a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators introduced the Artificial Intelligence Research, Innovation, and Accountability Act while pointing out, “Artificial intelligence comes with the potential for great benefits, but also serious risks, and our laws need to keep up.”

In Canada, Parliament began debating the Artificial Intelligence and Data Act in September.

The issue is, needless to say, complex. And it is not going away. You, as a community leader, need to understand the pros and cons of AI and how to use it effectively to help your citizens.

But it’s all a moot point if you don’t have high-speed internet access.

Government Initiatives to Bridge the Digital Divide

Governments need to move as quickly as possible to close the “digital divide” between urban and rural communities. In August of 2023, the United States government announced more than $650 million in grants and loans to 22 states to connect rural residents and businesses with high-speed internet. That’s in light of a study by the Pew Research Center in 2019 that discovered that 27 percent of people in rural locations did not have access to the internet while 40 percent of schools lacked broadband connection.

Closer to my home, the Alberta government wants to bring reliable high-speed internet access to every community in the province by 2027. The Canadian government wants 98 per cent of Canadians to have access to high-speed internet by 2026 and 100 per cent by 2030.

That might be quick by government standards. But it’s a snail’s pace compared to the speed of technology. The quicker our national and regional governments can connect rural residents to high-speed internet, the faster their communities can catch up to the rest of the world that is already navigating the fast lane of AI.