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ESCAP 74th Commission Plenary: Frontier technological innovation: policies to accelerate the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals

Against this backdrop, the Asia-Pacific region and the world are moving steadily into the fourth industrial revolution. The scale, scope and speed of this transformation could be unlike anything the region has experienced before. A key concern is that this revolution, especially the uptake, adaptation and distribution of benefits generated by frontier technologies, such as artificial intelligence, could magnify inequalities through anticipated losses of certain lower-skilled job categories.

Technological progress is generally desirable as it brings economic growth and opportunities to address critical social and environmental concerns. Yet, it can create and reinforce inequalities of outcome and opportunity with implicit results for the environment. Frontier technologies, including automation, artificial intelligence, big data and advances in biological and environmental sciences, are likely to intensify inequalities of outcome and opportunity in the region because technological capabilities are not equally distributed across countries and people. Inequalities may also increase if jobs are lost in export-oriented labour-intensive industries in developing countries.

The persistent digital divide in the region is particularly worrisome. For instance, in 2016, in 18 countries in the region, there are fewer than 2 fixed-broadband subscriptions per 100 inhabitants, compared to more than 40 in the Republic of Korea. Reliable and resilient broadband networks are often the foundation for developing and using frontier technologies such as artificial intelligence. However, the lack of such broadband networks in many parts of the region means that artificial intelligence uptake is and will continue to be uneven.

To an increasing extent, technologies can either exacerbate or curb inequalities. More advanced countries, often early adopters of frontier technologies, must manage the impact of technological transitions on inequality. Middle-income countries should focus on upgrading technological skills and ensuring that technological progress is inclusive. The priority for low-income countries is to build their technological capabilities to spur economic growth and focus on the adoption, the adaptation and the diffusion of existing technologies. The development of broadband infrastructure is particularly important for technological development and bridging the digital divide.

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