Opinion guest column

Moving Latin America forward: how to accelerate the adoption of artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence may be able to advance the economy and the collective social wellbeing of the Latin American people if the region cooperates and implements the right AI initiatives

Latin America is a region unique for its cultural and geographical diversity, as well as for its set of unique set of social challenges and opportunities. In the last century, Latin America has been slow to develop compared with other regions of the world such as North America or Europe. Some have even named the region the forgotten continent.

Artificial intelligence provides an opportunity to accelerate the development of Latin America in the near future. This will only be true if AI receives adequate support and if initiatives are developed rapidly in the region. While AI possesses major risks, it offers a unique and powerful tool to tackle the United Nations’ (U.N.) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). If AI is properly adopted in underdeveloped regions, it can be a powerful solution enabler for important problems in the region such as health, education, poverty alleviation, and other humanitarian emergencies, all issues playing a central stage at the U.N.’s 2030 agenda.

MIT is one of the key players worldwide in artificial intelligence research, and one of its main missions is to make a better world. MIT is arguably the most ideal place to kickstart the development of wide-reaching initiatives in AI that would socially benefit and boost growth of Latin America.

Cross-national and cross-sectoral collaboration is key to the development of AI. Hence, countries in the region need to heavily collaborate in the development of artificial intelligence initiatives. The region rarely collaborates in large scale multi-country projects that can generate value and serve all.  AI initiatives offer the unique opportunity to think out-of-the-box, innovate and mend institutional processes to encourage countries in the region to collaborate effectively, as this may be the only way forward to catch up with the most proficient AI initiatives happening in the rest of the world.

Digital infrastructure and modernization have to be rapidly adopted. Digital modernization has enormous benefits for the region: it can lower administrative costs, processing times, and, more importantly, it will serve the purpose of generating essential data for training AI systems. The region also needs to keep in mind that building a reliable digital infrastructure requires the adoption of robust security systems to protect sensitive data. Very recently, we have witnessed massive leaks of sensitive private information worldwide due to weak digital infrastructure.

Latin America needs to invest heavily in training its workforce to develop and use AI. AI adoption in the academic sector and training programs in the region has been slow. AI can potentiate every academic program and discipline; a clear example is happening right here at MIT with the restructuring of the Institute with the opening of the Schwarzman College of Computing. The college is set to reshape MIT to be an AI-centric university. Latin America should not rely entirely on attracting foreign AI talent to develop its AI initiatives; it must aim to build its own AI workforce. Moreover, the region must also invest in strategies to keep its AI talent from the “brain drain” that is currently affecting the region, since the most proficient AI companies in the world, such as Google, are willing to pay big to attract the best AI talent they can find.

The region should also work toward a regional ethical framework on the use of AI. The ethical implications of AI have enormous effects on humanity. As of today, the world has not come up with concrete and actionable AI ethics frameworks. Latin America needs to be an ethics-first AI continent to guarantee that the technology will be developed and deployed for social benefit. An ethical framework should be a priority — one that is aimed at effectively regulating ethical concerns, such as the use of AI deepfakes to spread misinformation.

Latin America is experiencing a critical period of social unrest and the shifting of political powers due to social inequalities. AI can play a key role in the social and economic development of the region. To achieve that ambitious objective, the region needs to collaborate, create the appropriate digital infrastructure to sustain successful AI projects, train its next-generation AI workforce, and have a robust ethical framework to guarantee the positive impact of AI that the region needs. All of this will take us steps closer to ultimately making the world a better and more equal place for everyone.

At MIT, we are organizing the first AI Latin American SumMIT 2020. The sumMIT will bring to MIT key leaders in the Latin American region from government, industry, and academic sectors. It will take place on Jan. 21–23, 2020 at the MIT Media Lab. The meeting seeks to reflect on current AI initiatives in the region, the benefits and risks of AI, and how AI may be able to advance the economy and the collective social wellbeing of the region. The sumMIT program will be focused on the use of AI to advance the U.N.’s 2030 agenda.

The main motivation behind organizing the sumMIT is to enable a place for conversations to prevent the deepening of existing inequalities between Latin America and the rest of the world with respect to AI. As we start a new decade, the region needs to urgently take action on developing AI for social benefit in a set of key initiatives and also to learn from mistakes made in other regions of the world.

Omar Costilla-Reyes is the lead organizer of the AI Latin American SumMIT 2020. He is a Picower Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT.