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‘AI Is Going to Cause the Next Digital Divide’

At Net Inclusion 2024, digital equity experts weighed in on the potential inequities inherent to the acceleration of artificial intelligence, offering advice to those wanting to prepare.

Image of a woman's hand activating an AI button
The leader of the most prominent digital inclusion organization in the country has a straightforward take on artificial intelligence.

“AI is going to cause the next digital divide,” said Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA). “I have no doubt about that.”

Siefer said this at Net Inclusion 2024, held this week in Philadelphia. Net Inclusion is the nation’s premiere gathering for folks who work in digital inclusion or equity, including those who do the work every day at the community level. And there was a buzz there this year about AI, so much so that Siefer herself hosted a panel centered on AI and digital inclusion.

“So, digital equity community,” she continued, “it’s up to us to get in front of that, to get in front of a digital divide for the first time.”

Indeed, where Siefer sees AI causing new inequities — largely around people needing training in how to use it, as well as the human biases that will be programmed in — she also said she sees opportunity. In the past, digital inclusion practitioners have almost always played catch-up. Now, however, they can see a new technology coming, at a time when the digital inclusion ecosystem has never been so ready to help grapple with new tech.

This preparative stance should help digital inclusion organizations tasked with training people on AI — be they in community centers or public libraries — and how to ask funders for money, too, Siefer added.

In addition to delivering her take, Siefer went on to host a panel discussion with other experts. Joining her was Amina Fazlullah of Common Sense Media, an organization focused on supporting kids, families and educators using tech. One of Common Sense’s specialties is offering ed-tech product reviews.

Fazlullah pointed out that AI is not new, and most people use it regularly without realizing it, for things like auto-filling Google searches or filtering noise out of Zoom calls. What is new — and is likely the reason there was a certain buzz about AI at Net Inclusion — is the emergence of generative AI.

Common Sense Media has free materials to help the people it works with process generative AI, and they are working on product reviews, an area that is pretty scant at the moment because of how fast products are coming out. For example, Fazlullah recalled publishing a review and that same day having multiple more AI products released.

She also told the digital equity crowd that it was important for them to engage with policymakers as laws were being shaped around AI, because they work with and represent people who will face bad outcomes if they aren’t considered.

Also on the panel was Luke Swarthout, the chief of staff at the small education nonprofit InnovateEDU. Swarthout is a digital inclusion veteran, having previously spent 10 years working for the New York Public Library helping to coordinate digital hot spot programs across the city.

Swarthout said that digital equity will manifest in AI — or any new technological system, really — because it is built off of old technological systems, which were themselves unequal.

“If you build your AI system off the content on the web, you’re embedding inequalities in that,” he said.

Swarthout went on to emphasize that AI is something that digital inclusion practitioners must prepare for, saying that staying on the Internet while opting out of AI will quickly become a false choice.

“AI is like a fire — it’s all around us, and it has the possibility to provide warmth,” he said, “but it also has the potential to burn some stuff up.”
Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.