The Next Digital Divide for Rural: Artificial Intelligence

By: Wayne Kelly

The Digital Divide has not been solved for rural

In Canada, the Digital Divide between rural and urban areas continues to persist despite efforts to close it. The recent Connectivity in Rural and Remote Areas report by the Auditor General highlights that Canada is still missing its connectivity targets for rural, and remote communities. The report determined that in 2021 only 59.5% of Canadians in those regions have access that meets the 50 Mbps download and 10 Mbps upload government targets compared to 99.3% of urban Canadians. While progress is being made, it is slow and does not match the connectivity options available in urban areas. The market stimulus approach taken to connect Canada has improved connectivity for non-urban areas but at a much slower pace than needed and the approach has not created equitable connectivity for Canadians outside of urban centers. The Auditor General’s report states that rural and remote connectivity has been improving on average by 5.7% since 2018. If connectivity improvements continue at that rate, it will take rural and remote Canadians six more years to reach current urban connectivity levels based on a target that will be reviewed and revised in 3 years and is arguably out of date already.

The impact of this divide goes beyond connectivity. Research shows that there are second and third-level impacts that affect individuals and communities, organizations and businesses, schools, and hospitals. Rural, remote, and First Nations communities struggle to take advantage of the opportunities provided by digital technologies and instead spend a disproportionate amount of time dealing with the barriers created by the digital divide in a digital society. The pandemic highlighted this issue as non-urban schools struggled to create Wi-Fi and accessibility options for their students, limiting their ability to participate in online education. The extensive digitalization of society from education to working online to shopping has made it more challenging for rural businesses to compete and for rural students and workers to access digital options.

Addressing the digital divide is an ongoing challenge that requires collaboration between all levels of government, community organizations, educational institutions, and businesses. While building minimum capacity connectivity is essential, it is also critical to emphasize digital skills and a culture of digital use in rural, northern, and Indigenous communities. Digital technologies are increasingly disrupting the workplace, education, and personal lives at a rapid rate, and rural northern and remote communities risk being excluded from these benefits without the necessary digital capacity and culture.

Adding a new layer to the Digital Divide: Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence (AI) is the latest disruption that is upending society. With the release of ChatGPT and its counterparts, AI is suddenly everywhere demanding our attention, changing conversations about roles, output, copyright, and responses for knowledge workers and educators. AI tools like DALL-E and similar visual AI replication generation tools are impacting the artistic and graphic design worlds in much the same way that ChatGPT is disrupting the writing world. Since ChatGPT’s release in November 2022, new applications, variations and even generations of AI are being released at an exponential rate.

The opportunities around AI currently include the ability to support or do knowledge work in an accessible way like never before. This includes, writing reports, populating data, develop marketing strategies and business planning, and enhance social media. Using tools like ChatGPT to help identify and draft funding proposals or to tailor community profiles for prospective businesses in real time are exciting opportunities that save resources AND allow rural communities to deliver new services. Opportunities like ChatGPT were not available six months ago and with the current pace of development in AI, a whole suite of new opportunities for rural will be available in another six months.

For rural communities, AI offers tantalizing opportunities that can solve a surprising amount of the capacity and resource divides that rural communities and organizations have long faced. However, to take advantage of the benefits of AI, rural communities need to build the digital capacity and culture now to incorporate these new technologies. While there is a general fear that AI will replace all knowledge workers, the growing discussion is that it will be the knowledge workers and organizations that use AI that push those that do not use AI out of work. This question and others need to be explored by rural communities, researchers, and practitioners and collectively we need to be leaning-in to digital technologies in rural areas and examining the benefits and challenges of using AI to better support rural development. Because the reality is that rural communities that do not explore, understand, and incorporate new digital technologies like AI today, run the real risk of being left further behind tomorrow by those that are.