In the internet’s digital sprawl, knowledge exists in abundance, but it often speaks in a foreign tongue.
Indeed, about 56% of the web’s content is written in English, making it a treasure trove for some, and a cryptic crossword for others. This linguistic predicament is particularly acute for the 4 billion residents of the Global South (India, Southeast Asia, LatAm and Africa), where English is less spoken, and many pockets of poverty persist. However, generative artificial intelligence (GenAI) may be about to stage a coup de traduction, levelling the playing field in knowledge access.
A tour of the Global South’s digital landscape unveils a curious paradox. Roughly 60% of its residents have a smartphone, often complete with a data plan, permitting them a ringside seat to the digital circus. Yet, the language barrier has left them, in many ways, clowning around the edges. With GenAI’s language skills, capable of accepting and producing output in an array of tongues, the big top of global knowledge may finally be open to all.
Imagine a young inhabitant of rural Bangladesh. This Bengali speaker, armed with only a low-cost smartphone, has been sidelined in the grand spectacle of global information. Thanks to Generative AI, with technology like Meta’s open-source speech AI recognising over 4,000 spoken languages, she’s now centre ring, able to query and understand a world of information previously beyond her reach.
The potential pay-offs of this linguistic performance are innumerable. From a work perspective, GenAI allows our Bengali user to query, “How can I grow my rice paddy more effectively?”, “Which crafts are currently in vogue?”, or “Could you teach me bookkeeping basics for my business?”. Each inquiry can be met with solid answers, turning her smartphone into a smart tool for personal and economic development.
Moreover, GenAI could enhance lives beyond mere occupational gains. Whether it’s recognising the symptoms of dengue fever, instructions to build a solar cooker, or suggestions for child-friendly Bengali books, the AI’s responses could be the Swiss Army Knife of self-improvement.
Even literacy, often a circus hoop in digital engagement, is bypassed by GenAI’s speech-recognition capabilities, enabling it to function as a voice-activated tool, answering queries conversationally.
Of course, this vision of an all-access digital circus requires effort from all concerned. Governments must improve digital infrastructure, businesses need to perfect AI capabilities, and NGOs have a part to play in boosting digital literacy.
As we journey deeper into the digital age, GenAI’s potential to democratise access to knowledge is a high-wire act worth watching. This technology, if effectively utilised, could empower billions, stoke socioeconomic advancement, and lift communities in the Global South. In ensuring that knowledge access remains a universal right, we must ensure that no one is left juggling in the dark. Generative AI may well be the spotlight we need, ensuring the future is not only more digital, but more equitable—and certainly less of a circus.