AI & Equality Initiative: The Path to Meaningful Connectivity, with Doreen Bogdan-Martin

December 11, 2020

Meeting of the International Telecommunication Union Council in Geneva, Switzerland, 2018.
CREDIT: ITU Pictures (CC)

ANJA KASPERSEN: Hello and welcome to an exciting new podcast from the Carnegie Council AI & Equality Initiative. I am Anja Kaspersen, a senior fellow with Carnegie Council.

WENDELL WALLACH: And I’m Wendell Wallach, a Carnegie-Uehiro Fellow. This podcast series will confront the issues of systemic inequality and newly created inequities as they arise in the deployment of artificial intelligence (AI).

ANJA KASPERSEN: We will bring together diverse voices from leaders in the field to help us understand ethical challenges we are facing today and convey practical insights that promote equality and identify ways to mitigate unanticipated harm.

WENDELL WALLACH: To learn more about this initiative and access additional podcast episodes, visit our website at www.carnegieaie.org.

ANJA KASPERSEN: We hope you enjoy the show. Thank you for listening.

Welcome back to all our listeners. I am very excited to be joined today by the extraordinary Doreen Bogdan-Martin on our podcast today. Doreen is the director of the Telecommunication Development Bureau (BDT) and one of the five elected officials in the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). She has had a very impressive career in telecommunications. Doreen is also the first woman to hold an elective office at the ITU. She also leads ITU's contribution to EQUALS: The Global Partnership for Gender Equality in the Digital Age and serves as executive director of the UN Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development.

For those of you who are not aware, ITU was originally the International Telegraph Union, and is one of the oldest international organizations in operation today. It was founded in 1865 to coordinate telegraph signals, and its mandate has evolved ever since with the advent of new communications technologies from radio spectrum use, wireless technologies, radio astronomy, maritime navigation, TV broadcasting, next-generation networks, and assigning satellite orbits, as well as negotiating technical standards for the global telecommunications infrastructure. In other words, the work of Doreen and her colleagues permeates our entire contemporary technological and digital reality.

However, my conversation with Doreen today is less about the work of the ITU and more about Doreen's incredible personal and professional journey. Her passion for this field has awed me since I first saw her speak at the Broadband Commission on the importance of strategic foresight and how to ensure that the return on investment in digital infrastructures puts people at the center.

Doreen, how did your journey into telecommunications start?

DOREEN BOGDAN-MARTIN: Thank you, Anja.

Growing up I was always crazy about science. I was passionate about chemistry in particular, but I grew let's say less interested in my chemistry labs in university, and I ended up dropping chemistry and transitioned over to social sciences.

It was my postgraduate experience I would say that brought me back to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. I was taking a class in my graduate studies in international communications, which was very focused on technology, specifically satellites, and I was really struck by the writings of Arthur C. Clarke, and the fact that three geostationary satellites could actually cover the world and enable people to communicate from one side of the planet to the other, and I wanted to learn more.

My interests led me to an internship at the U.S. Department of Commerce. I think in so many cases it all starts with a good internship, and I was fortunate because I had a great internship, working for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration at the U.S. Department of Commerce, when at the time the government was reviewing its separate satellite systems policy. This is the end of the 1980s and early 1990s when there was basically no competition. There were two big satellite monopolies, one for maritime and one for everything else, Inmarsat and Intelsat, and the U.S. government was looking at ways to liberalize and bring in new private sector satellite companies. I was fortunate because I became part of the team that rewrote the U.S. policy while I was finishing my graduate degree.

I loved it. It was partly about the technology side, but I would say it was even more about the impact that the connectivity would have on people and on people's lives. I also think it's important to keep in mind that of course at this time this was a world that was pre-mobile phones, pre-the World Wide Web, but nevertheless it was an exciting time.

After four years in the government I made my next professional step, which was to come to the International Telecommunication Union. As you mentioned, I lead the development arm in the union, and when I started I was actually in the Development Bureau at the time as well, working on regulatory and policy developments and support to countries that were beginning to liberalize, privatize, and open up their markets to the exciting opportunities that connectivity can bring. I started in the ITU and moved on to lead the strategic planning and membership part, where I became very engaged with the United Nations, co-led the creation of the Broadband Commission, which is where you and I met, and now I am back leading the development work.

This is such an important and exciting time for the work of the ITU as a whole because if the COVID-19 pandemic has shown anything, it is the importance of being connected and the fact that there are still 3.7 billion people out there who are not connected. Despite being the oldest organization out there I think we have the most relevant mission today, which has never been so important.

ANJA KASPERSEN: I know that one of the milestone documents that inspired you in your career and some of your thinking around the issue of connectivity is what was called "The Missing Link" report written by Donald Maitland. One point that struck me in that report is about the shift from public to private and from network to platforms, which we are seeing today.

Where do you see us as being now, and where are we heading? I know these are very big questions but also something I know is very near and dear to your heart.

DOREEN BOGDAN-MARTIN: It is such an important piece of work. Sir Donald Maitland led this report. It was commissioned I think in 1982, and the report was launched in 1984. When you think about the report, at the time there were 600 million telephones, and three-quarters of those were concentrated in nine countries, which is incredible. What Maitland's report called for was that for the early part of the next century all of mankind should be within what he called "easy reach" of a telephone. What did "easy reach" of a telephone mean? It meant walking distance.

What was so important was that Maitland saw very, very clearly that telecommunications and connectivity were absolutely essential to development. Even at the time he talked about the link between connectivity and productivity, the link between connectivity and efficiency in other sectors, and also the link between connectivity and enhancing the quality of life in the world as a whole but very specifically in the developing world. He went on to talk about the importance of connectivity being fundamental to any development program of any country and that in order for these programs to be balanced connectivity had to be right there and it had to have its appropriate role.

He also said at the time that, in order to get to the beginning of the next century goal that he had set out, it would take about a $12 billion investment. Again, it is great to look back at this and see where we are now. Back then it was analog, it was fixed line, and today it is all about the Internet, and today we have half the world that is not connected. Our latest estimates show that it will take over $400 billion to actually get there with connectivity.

Whose job is it? I think that comes to your question, and definitely Maitland was putting the onus on the states. I think state governments still have a key role to play. Connectivity needs to be put on par with electricity, gas, and other essential resources, but it is not going to be governments alone that will be able to carry the burden of building up the infrastructure to connect the other half of the world. We do need all hands on deck. We need the private sector to come forward. We even need civil society to come forward. We need innovative solutions to get it done.

Again, what is so important with Maitland's findings is that big link that he made way back when between that connectivity and overall economic and social progress, and if we don't succeed in bringing the other half of the world online, we are in 2030 going to be leaving a large percentage of the world behind, and that is not what we want to do when we think about the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

I would maybe also tie it to what we are trying to achieve with the UN Secretary-General's Roadmap on Digital Cooperation. We have a number of actions that were specified in that roadmap. I would even tie many of them back to some of the things that Maitland called for. He also stressed the importance of capacity building, which remains today a huge challenge for so many developing countries. We are seeing things like lack of digital skills as a huge impediment to connectivity. Looking back at his work, the roadmap that he laid out, and tying it to modern-day pieces like the UN Secretary-General's Roadmap on Digital Cooperation, it is mind blowing to think that we still have so much work to do.

ANJA KASPERSEN: That is something that is striking with your career, Doreen, this historical institutional knowledge, which is very rare in a field as vast as telecommunications.

I know you are a fierce promoter of equality and a rights-based approach in a lot of your work, especially thinking about how to bring in more diverse stakeholders. You also have been quoted several times saying that you believe connectivity alone will not connect and protect us, that connectivity has to be meaningful.

DOREEN BOGDAN-MARTIN: Connectivity on its own does almost nothing. Just because you brought the pipe to the village or to the home, that is not what is going to be game changing. It is all the things that you can do with connectivity.

Yes, I use the expression "meaningful connectivity," which means that the networks and the services are available, that they are affordable, and that they are accessible to the people who need them. So it's not just about a supply issue of getting the infrastructure there, it is also very much focused on the demand side, on the usage case, to be able to make sure that communities, individuals, and countries have what they need to be able to take advantage of connectivity, to be able to create, to be able to share, and to be able to transform their lives using that connectivity. That is where it becomes all-empowering and, as I said, game-changing.

Some of the challenges, yes, we have a pretty big digital skills gap. We have connectivity available. We have coverage in places. We have even devices that maybe are not as expensive as they might be in other places, but those digital skills are lacking, and the digital literacy is not there, so the connectivity is not being used.

We have other situations where the connectivity is not being used because what it is offering is not interesting or useful to local communities. Maybe it is not in local languages, or it has nothing to do with local interest. We have other issues linked to maybe safety and security. Some people feel threatened and unsafe when they think about getting connected, and that is where we hope to do further rollouts of our Child Online Protection Guidelines and help to empower people with those kinds of skill sets so that they can take advantage.

I think we also have to remember that the industry as a whole is very male-dominated. So when it comes to creating the apps, to creating the equipment, to creating the solutions, those solutions are being created by part of the population and not the other part. There is a huge digital gender gap in terms of access to services, in terms of the digital skills that I already mentioned, and in terms of representation in the sector.

We might talk about AI later. This is a big problem when it comes to AI, but the imbalance in representation in the whole information and communications technology (ICT) industry is a big challenge, and we need to work on having better representation of different groups and having more diversity at the table to ensure that the technology solutions are adapted to all segments of society.

I do think we have a ways to go. The whole standard-setting process is absolutely essential, and we need more diversity in the standards-making process. I do not think that there is a quick fix per se. I do think that whether it is middle school, high school, or university we need to do a better job of attracting girls to this space, whether it's in radio communications and spectrum management and engineering or the standard side or the development side. I think we need to do a better job in trying to bring more girls and young women into the technology space.

ANJA KASPERSEN: I am going to move on to a slightly different topic. We are in the last month of a year that has been anything but easy. I think we can all agree on that. And COVID-19 will leave behind an historical imprint. It has also accelerated, as you mentioned yourself, our online presence, and our reliance upon connectivity to continue working or receiving an education.

Platform companies have acquired unprecedented power and access to knowledge and data about us, and rarely has the work that you and your colleagues in this field do every day been more important, and rarely have the risks that you are also tackling been so multifaceted. I would go so far myself as to argue that as governments and companies are under pressure from COVID-19 to transform the informational technology infrastructure, there is a risk that due diligence perhaps is often not looked upon as closely as it should be. What are your thoughts on the current situation? Where do you see the opportunities, and are there things that make you feel a little uneasy about where we are and moving forward?

DOREEN BOGDAN-MARTIN: Starting with the last part of the question, I think the COVID-19 pandemic has definitely exposed the urgency of getting 3.7 billion people—the other half of the world—connected. It has without doubt made that case in a way like nothing else could. In the wake of COVID-19 and to build social and economic resilience, I think that to face future emergencies, should they come, we do need to work hard. I think we do need to work fast so that we can bring the benefits of digital technologies to everyone.

So giving a big push to network penetration out to the unserved and the underserved will need a huge injection of investment dollars. We know that the tech sector has also not been spared. The infrastructure providers in particular have taken a big hit, yet we need this investment to get to that last mile. As I mentioned before, our estimates show that we are going to need around $428 billion to get the remaining half of the world online. As I said, the pandemic is not going to make the task of getting this vital investment very easy.

We had a panel of economic experts that we convened recently that pointed to an increase in traffic volumes, which has resulted in an acceleration of capital expenditure related to the expansion of network capacity. Spending not directly related to measures to increase capacity is being postponed in some cases, especially in emerging and developing economies, so that can be concerning I would say.

But the picture overall is not that bleak. I think we are beginning to see evidence that international financial institutions—we have heard recently from the World Bank, we are talking to the European Investment Bank—and national governments are recognizing the vital importance of broadband to economic recovery plans with billions of dollars starting to be allocated to digital infrastructure investments. I would say at least this is promising.

We did hear about digital in many heads-of-state interventions at the UN General Assembly. Connectivity was a big highlight at this year's G20. So in various different fora we are seeing finally that there is recognition at the highest levels that this is a key priority. Getting that network infrastructure is absolutely vital, but as I said before that is definitely not enough to bridge the digital divide and put access within reach of all, so we need to do more. We do need all hands on deck, as I mentioned before, to ensure that that digital access is a core national priority.

So we need the regulators and the policymakers in the mix. We need to be looking at enabling frameworks, frameworks that are also agile. We need the private sector partners to step up. We need new business models, new ways of cooperating with different market players. There is a lot to do, and I think the most important is that the leadership and collaboration that we have seen throughout the COVID-19 crisis, particularly in the ICT industry, needs to continue over the months and years ahead.

We set up something called #REG4COVID. We set up this platform and we invited all stakeholders—not just governments—to tell us what they were doing, how they were dealing with their demand spikes and how they were getting connectivity out to the unconnected. We had 500 different inputs of actions being taken by different stakeholders to address the connectivity challenges around COVID-19.

What we saw was lots of innovation. We saw lots of forward-thinking on the parts of regulators and policymakers, and we are hopeful that this kind of thinking and the actions that were put in to solve the immediate crisis will continue in the future.

I think you are right in that there could be some concerns as countries and industries—everybody wants to move fast, so what are the steps that we need to make sure that we take so that it happens in the right way? It is a pressing, urgent need, and I think what can be done is that we collaborate, we share experiences, and we try to get it done in the most efficient and best way.

ANJA KASPERSEN: When ITU and you personally were investing in launching this discussion around AI for Good, what was the thinking behind it?

DOREEN BOGDAN-MARTIN: Going back to the conference itself so you can get a sense of where it started, we did the first summit in 2017, and in the planning part for the summit we had this notion of good. As you said, what does "good" mean?

For us, good was achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. So we made the direct link to the 17 Goals, which meant we needed to be talking to our UN sister agencies and partners. Back in 2017 in our discussions we attracted 20 agencies to join us. It was a first for the United Nations to come together on a very new and emerging, cutting-edge topic that didn't have a mandate or fit in a particular UN committee or any one particular UN organization.

It was basically 20 agencies coming together where we started to think about: Okay, what are we doing? How are we thinking about AI in terms of our respective mandates? How can we be thinking of AI and how it can be used to help achieve each and every one of the SDGs? By 2018 we had 32 agencies, and we have continued to grow since then. Of course, this year everything went virtual, it was all online, and it was the AI For Good Summit online all the time with numerous kinds of discussions and sessions.

Again, going back to the first summit, we had different agencies coming forward with things that they were experimenting with, from how to use machine learning and AI to manage crops, for example, in developing countries, and how to use AI in terms of nutrition, so linking it to the health SDG. The one I thought was cool from the very beginning was how to use AI to detect diabetic retinopathy, something that is very hard to detect with the human eye, and how to use AI to predict deforestation.

It was incredible—of course, you were with us from the very beginning—to have different partners, to have academic institutions, and to have research institutes, the private sector, and governments come and look at all the things that are happening, very focused on SDGs that could bring good, that could be life changing, that could save lives, and that could help save the planet.

From there I would say it was born. The events in themselves have certainly grown as I think has the importance of AI globally with different organizations, and the UN system as a whole, taking different steps in the AI space.

I think the AI and data revolution is yet to yield tangible dividends for most of the developing countries. In these countries they often lack the necessary preconditions from reliable ICT infrastructure and access to electricity as well as to human capital, and the enabling frameworks to be able to collect enough data to utilize AI algorithms for development. That is where we are trying to work with partners to bridge the gap including by publishing data and analysis on emerging technologies in developing countries, so trying to partner with developing countries and trying to step up our capacity building to make sure that as we advance in this space we are not leaving anyone behind.

I do want to stress as I mentioned before that there is a pretty big gap in terms of women working in this space, and when it comes to the development of algorithms if maybe only 10 percent are being contributed to by women, I don't think that puts us in a good place, so we do have lots more to do. I would say overall that emerging technologies have huge potential to improve people's lives, but they can't improve lives on their own. We need to have a development agenda—and this comes back to your point about "good"—that reflects the world that we want, an agenda that is forged I would say in an open and inclusive manner and with a diverse set of teams at the wheel to help ensure that we are properly reflecting the diversity that we find in the societies in which we live.

Not just with AI but with digital issues overall I would say the biggest change that we are seeing—and we are seeing this as well with our membership and with the UN system as a whole—is that digital cuts across every single sector of an economy. Digital cuts across every single UN mission and mandate, and we are at this point where we are reflecting on: Okay, how does it get governed? How do we deal with something that is not in its little silo? I would almost argue that Donald Maitland saw at the time that telecommunications was not a silo but was actually linked to every sector of the economy, but we have always let's say chosen that by tradition the regulatory policy part has been siloed. Now we are at a point where it is cutting across every single sector of the economy, and how do we deal with it?

What we have been advocating—and we have some great examples of recent work that we have done—is for governments to take this whole-of-government approach and to look at how they want to bring digital to their country as a whole. We did this work in Niger to do a smart village. Again, this goes back to not just bringing the connectivity but the meaningful part that connectivity brings. We brought in the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization and all different UN players so that when the connectivity was there we could actually bring in the agriculture piece, the health piece, the education piece, and all the other pieces that go with it.

We need to continue the discussions, the out-of-the-box thinking, bring in let's say cross-sectoral expertise, bring in different line ministries, and make sure that together we are crafting these digital strategies that countries need to take onboard so that everyone can benefit, so that no one is left behind.

I think it is challenging. Again, I refer to the Roadmap on Digital Cooperation because it lays out I think the right pieces, but how do you actually put it into action with so many different UN agencies holding different pieces of the mandate and so many countries having those different mandates laid out in different line ministries? It is a bit of a challenge for the future, and that is where I think it is important to be thinking about collaborative practices, collaborative regulation, collaborative policymaking, and to make sure that we are all working together.

ANJA KASPERSEN: I am happy that you circled back to the Maitland report where we started off.

If you were to take away one, two, or even three main takeaways not from the work of ITU but from your professional career that you would like to share with our listeners, especially the younger listeners coming into this field?

DOREEN BOGDAN-MARTIN: I feel very privileged, very lucky, to have started out when I did in this space. I think about going off to university. I recently sent my children off to university, and my mother found my packing list when she sent me off to university. There are many funny things. My kids loved it because I went off with a typewriter, and I went off with a bag of quarters so that I could make my phone call on Sundays.

It was very different, and I think young people today are born digital natives, so they cannot necessarily appreciate what I can, not being a digital native, and being so excited when I was a teenager when the extra-long phone cord was invented so that I could actually get on the phone, go down to the basement, get away from my parents, and have a phone call with some level of privacy with my girlfriends or boyfriends. I remember those little advances that I thought were life changing.

Today it is incredible because the pace of the technological change is unbelievable. New things are happening every day. I think governments, regulators, and policymakers will never be able to keep pace with the speed of technology, but it is super-exciting. Definitely there are risks; you have mentioned some of them. There are security challenges. There are ethical issues.

But if we can come together and try to figure out ways to leverage this incredible potential—the potential was huge when Donald Maitland thought about picking up the phone and calling someone on the other side of the planet—to have the world's resources at your fingertips through the Internet and the potential to keep online learning going for those furthest remote villages where those kids have not had any access to education since COVID-19 started because their classrooms were closed. The potential is tremendous.

I guess that's what excites me, the impact that this has on people's lives. But we do have so much more to do because half of the world's people are not benefitting from what you and I are benefitting from.

I also think that with these rapid technological leaps and bounds that we do have to remember the basics of human interactions, family relations, and things that are often impacted because everyone is into their technology. I am quite strict at the dinner table—no phones—that whole element. We do need to keep those physical—that hopefully will resume post-COVID-19—unique communicating moments. We don't want everything just to be virtual forever.

ANJA KASPERSEN: That is such a great note to end this super-interesting conversation with you, how to nurture the human relations as we are advancing quickly through these technological changes. Maybe that is how we stay resilient, never ever losing sight of the people at the center that you have spoken so eloquently about your entire career.

DOREEN BOGDAN-MARTIN: Absolutely, and making sure that the younger generations have those values, that we can make sure that they grow up with those important values that we grew up with.

ANJA KASPERSEN: Thank you so much, Doreen, for sharing stories from your professional career and insights from your day-to-day work.

DOREEN BOGDAN-MARTIN: Thank you, Anja. It has been a pleasure.

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