Across the sun-kissed archipelagos and bustling metropolises of Southeast Asia, a technological revolution simmers. Artificial intelligence promises to propel nations including Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand into the vanguard of progress, automating industries, optimizing health care, and streamlining governance.
But, as Malaysian entrepreneur Vijay Eswaran has discussed at length, that progress is not even. It is not “fair,” as beneath the veneer of optimism lies a specter: the widening digital divide.
In the 10 countries comprising the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a region rife with economic disparities and infrastructural inequalities, AI risks exacerbating existing fault lines, creating a two-tiered society where the digitally savvy reap the rewards while the marginalized are left behind.
This doesn’t make the ASEAN region different from many other large geographic regions. The United States, for example, has widening digital divides and educational gaps between its wealthy and poor, urban and rural, and even Northern and Southern regions.
But, as Eswaran wrote in late 2023, much of the ASEAN region is not considered developed — and getting left behind doesn’t just mean a more difficult path to work, but a more difficult path in life.
A Tale of Two Worlds
The digital divide in ASEAN is stark. Broadband penetration varies from a staggering 119.7% in Brunei and 93.8% in Malaysia, to just 51.9% in Myanmar, according to Statista.
While urban centers — like the city state of Singapore, or Kuala Lumpur and George Town of Penang in Malaysia — boast vibrant tech hubs, rural communities struggle with patchy internet access and outdated infrastructure. This uneven landscape presents a formidable challenge for AI adoption. Expensive hardware, complex algorithms, and the need for high-speed internet create a formidable barrier for those already struggling to access basic digital tools.
And this is an issue where more traditional jobs in those areas succumb to automation, possibly via AI.
“Traditional job roles are evolving or becoming obsolete, leading to concerns about job displacement so that reskilling and upskilling are essential to help workers adapt to the changing job landscape,” Eswaran wrote.
Job Market Metamorphosis
AI’s potential to transform job markets is undeniable. From automating repetitive tasks in factories to powering chatbots in customer service, it rewrites the script of traditional employment. While some hail this as an opportunity for reskilling and upskilling, the reality for many in ASEAN could be grim. Millions currently employed in low-skilled, labor-intensive jobs face the stark prospect of displacement. With limited access to retraining programs and alternative sources of income, they risk being locked out of the new AI-driven economy.
Eswaran has proposed governmental intervention at this level, feeling that wholesale adoption and the financial backing of the government are the only true way to lift the whole apparatus.
He referenced a program in Thailand as an example.
“In Thailand, the government has been pushing the Thailand 4.0 economic policy, which aims to transform the nation’s economy into an innovation-driven one,” Eswaran wrote.
The Knowledge Gap Widens
The benefits of AI extend far beyond economic productivity. In health care, AI-powered diagnostics and personalized medicine hold immense promise. In education, adaptive learning platforms can tailor instruction to individual needs.
However, these advancements rely heavily on data and digital literacy. In a region where educational attainment varies significantly and digital skills are often lacking, marginalized communities risk being excluded from these crucial resources, further widening the knowledge gap.
Despite the challenges, the story of AI and the digital divide in ASEAN need not be one of inevitable dystopia. Proactive measures can be taken to mitigate the risks and ensure that AI becomes a force for inclusivity and shared prosperity.
Eswaran, like others, has pointed out that the starting point must be infrastructure. Expanding broadband access, particularly in rural areas, is crucial. Investments in digital literacy programs can equip individuals with the skills needed to navigate the AI-driven world. Public-private partnerships can play a key role in bridging the funding gap and promoting innovation.
However, many of these steps will result in wholesale changes in both work and lifestyle. Eswaran noted in an interview earlier this year that, right or wrong, many ASEAN people, including those in his home country of Malaysia, are reticent to change and averse to risk.
“Many Malaysians are averse to risk when it comes to entrepreneurship,” he said. “And analyzing risk sometimes paralyzes us.”
While starting a business and changing jobs are different, both require a leap of faith and carry inherent risk.
Venturing into the unknown, be it a new country or a new digital working environment, is no doubt a difficult task. But without it, the divide only grows.
Preparing the workforce for the AI revolution is critical to avoiding this. As Eswaran notes, government and industry must collaborate to create comprehensive reskilling and upskilling programs, focusing on in-demand digital skills and fostering adaptability and lifelong learning.
Recognizing that some jobs will be irreplaceable, robust social safety nets are essential during the transition. This includes unemployment benefits, income support programs, and retraining initiatives to support those most affected by AI-driven job displacement.
And a regional approach is necessary to address the digital divide effectively. ASEAN member states can share best practices, pool resources, and collaborate on regional initiatives to ensure equitable access to AI benefits.
Eswaran said his home country, Malaysia, is on the forefront of this compared to most other ASEAN countries, but going together is the only true way to have global influence.
“I think Malaysia, by itself, is too small, both as an economy and population-wise,” Eswaran said in an interview. “We are just too small to make a difference in the world globally. ASEAN, on the other hand, is home to over 600 million people and is one of the world’s fastest-growing regions.
The future of AI in ASEAN is still unwritten. It can be a tool for progress and shared prosperity, or it can exacerbate existing inequalities. The choices made today will determine which path the region takes.