Artificial intelligence, big data: Opportunities for enhancing human development in Thailand and beyond

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The use of artificial intelligence (AI) and big data can offer untapped opportunities for Thailand. Particularly, it has enormous potential to contribute to Thailand 4.0, a new value-based economic model driven by innovation, technology and creativity that is expected to unlock the country from several economic challenges resulting from past economic development models (agriculture – Thailand 1.0, light industry – Thailand 2.0, and heavy industry – Thailand 3.0), the “middle income trap” and “inequality trap”. One core aspect of Thailand 4.0 puts emphasis on developing new S-curve industries, which includes investing in digital, robotics, and the regional medical hub.

Today, the digital economy – with extensive use of AI and Big Data – is growing at a pace that far exceeds the global economy. We have witnessed the following phenomena: First, AI systems can currently handle enormous amounts of data, do computation at incredible speeds and deal with utmost complexity. Data that are in larger volumes and wider variety than ever before have been generated and captured – terabytes (1 TB is equal to 1,000,000 MB) of data are being generated every 60 seconds globally. Second, the costs of IT infrastructure have been declining. Thirty years ago, it costed over US $560 to store 1 GB of data; now it costs less than 1 US cent. Third, data processing has been much faster and with better analytics capability than ever before.

AI has already been used extensively by the private sector for commercial and profit-making purposes, including forecasting demand, predicting churns, suggesting advertisements on social media platforms, recommending products to potential buyers. However, not many people may have realized that we can use AI and big data to enhance human development and to address many development and social challenges.

How can it enhance human development? Here are some examples:
  • AI can analyze vast quantities of healthcare data, leading to scientific breakthroughs.
  • AI can predict and identify optimal budget allocation for effective and cost-effective interventions to achieve a government’s goal.
  • AI can revolutionize classrooms by providing individual learning pathways and virtual mentors.
  • AI can map poverty from space, enabling real-time resource allocation.
  • AI can predict and identify optimal production levels to reduce waste.
  • AI-based solutions make available Uber-like sharing of services for tractors and refrigeration, providing poorer farmers with access to the services that they need only at certain times of the year
  • AI-powered climate modelling can help predict climate-related disasters.
  • Pattern recognition can track the movement of fishing boats to combat illegal fishing.
  • Sensors can predict consumption patterns for efficient and safe water provision.
  • AI can drive more balanced hiring practices and spotlight gender inequality.
While we know that AI and big data can help drive exponential innovation, their use is currently very limited. As terabytes of data are being generated every minute, only 1% of this data is being used or analyzed. Public sector use of big data analytics and AI is the lowest.

The World Bank has been supporting the use of AI and big data to achieve our goals of decreasing poverty and increasing shared prosperity, and recently launched the AI for Development initiative and an Artificial Intelligence Lab. Boosting capacity is key in achieving these goals. In this regard, the World Bank organized a 5-day skills-building program focusing on big data, AI, and decision science in health and nutrition in Bangkok, featuring the participation of World Bank country teams as well as government and academic partners from Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Rwanda, Samoa, Tajikistan, Thailand, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe. Similar trainings were also held in Bucharest, Romania, and Pretoria, South Africa, engaging decision makers in public health from Latin America, Europe, Central Asia, and Africa.

Besides elaborating on the landscape for utilization of AI and decision science in health and nutrition, this training workshop also aimed to build the skills sets of decision makers by training them on various tools that utilize these technologies and aid in decision making processes. Participants got to practice on real-world scenarios, many of which were from their own regions or countries, and learned how to utilize tools such as Optima HIV, Health Service Prioritization tool, as well as broader big data techniques, in addressing challenges facing decision making in public health today.

The workshop was successful in creating awareness of the need for analytics to improve decision and delivery choices in health and development, and building capacity on analytical optimization tools that can answer pertinent policy and implementation questions for sectors. The team in Thailand, comprising of both government officials and World Bank staff, specifically aims to apply their newfound knowledge in improving the efficiency of resource allocations to support the national roadmap for ending the AIDS epidemic as a public health threat in Thailand by 2030 – specifically this is to further reduce annual new HIV infections from 6,500 to less than 1,000, cut AIDS-related deaths from almost 13,000 to under 4,000 and reduced HIV-related discrimination in health-care settings by 90%.

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