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Jakarta Post

Can AI help bridge digital divide in Southeast Asia?

  • Alpha Amirrachman


Jakarta   /   Sat, April 13, 2019   /   04:49 pm
Can AI help bridge digital divide in Southeast Asia? Artificial intelligence (AI) has now inevitably become a flourishing technological sphere capable of amending every aspect of our social interaction. (Shutterstock/maxuser)

Artificial intelligence (AI) has now inevitably become a flourishing technological sphere capable of amending every aspect of our social interaction. It is an area of computer science that stresses the construction of intelligent machines that labor and react almost like humans, particularly after recent breakthroughs dealing with the use of big data, economic access to computing power and advances in machine learning.

It is “machine with minds”, according to John Haugheland in 1985, or “the study of computations that make it possible to perceive, reason, and act”, as Patrick Winston wrote in 1992. AI has been implanted in our mobile phones, as they are now able to have “intimate” conversations with us, answer our questions and detect and even offer our personal preferences.

In education, AI has also been recommended to help attain the fourth Sustainable Development Goal, which is to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. Just recently UNESCO conducted a global conference on AI in Paris, where theorists, practitioners and policymakers gathered to discuss and debate the contribution of AI to education.

The conference discussed how AI has started creating new teaching and learning solutions that are being tested in various settings. The two prominent global hubs of AI development are the United States, which has invented various applications, and China, which is still a distant second but catching up fast. China has 730 million internet users and the government has an ambition to turn the country into the largest pole of AI development by 2030 by relying on private pillars. A private digital education company Huijang is developing a digital platform, Liulushuo, which teaches English to 600,000 students with the participation of a single teacher.

In Latin America, a Uruguayan state agency introduced an online adaptive learning solution called a “mathematics adaptive platform” developed by German company Bettermarks. The content has been adapted to the national curriculum and it is a tool that provides personalized feedback in accordance to student 

Nevertheless, AI requires advanced infrastructures and an environment of flourishing innovators. How about Southeast Asian countries?

During a recent workshop on school borders in Vientiane, for example, most teachers were amazed when the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organizations Regional Open Learning Center (SEAMOLEC) presenting their Innovation of Educational Resources for Remote Area, but teachers from the older generations seemed reluctant to pursue any further workshops about information and communication technology (ICT) until the committee reminded them of the importance for all teachers to have at least digital awareness.

Singapore has notably made the greatest advances in AI development and there are promising signs in countries like Malaysia and Vietnam. Indonesia has the potential, but much needs to be fixed.

Out of 262 million people, 143 million or 55 percent of the Indonesian population, are internet users, but social and digital divides still exist. According to the 2017 data of the Indonesian Internet Providers Association (APJII), internet penetration is 58 percent in Java, 19 percent in Sumatra, 7.97 percent in Kalimantan, 6.73 percent in Sulawesi, 5.63 percent in Bali-Nusa and only 2.49 percent in Maluku-Papua. In terms of age, 4.24 percent of internet users are above 54 years old, 29.55 percent are 35 to 54 years old, 49.52 percent are 19 to 34 years old and 16.68 percent are 13 to 18 years old. Also, 89.35 percent of the platforms being used by Indonesians are social media platforms for chatting, as compared to 7.39 percent for banking.

Worse, AI planted in mobile phones, for example, tends to be used mainly for consumptive behavior. This means, aside from digital divide, even the awareness to use digital technology, let alone AI, in a more productive way still seems far reaching.

Several efforts have been made. Education and Culture Minister Muhadjir Effendy introduced computer-based tests for national final exams. SEAMOLEC has also been working closely with the ministry’s Center for Technology and Communication to implant AI in the English version of the latter’s Rumah Belajar online learning platform and to develop Indonesia’s Open Educational Resources hub as mandated by UNESCO.

Furthermore, SEAMOLEC has initiated online entrepreneurship courses for vocational students and a SeaCreativeCamp competition for Southeast Asian students to encourage them to produce ICT innovations such as on the internet of things, augmented reality, software programming and much more. Until now, 10,208 students and teachers have taken part in the competition, resulting in 344 projects.

With its huge population, Indonesia has a massive opportunity to make full use of AI for educational and productive activities, which would catapult Indonesia’s intellectual role, ICT standing and economic performance in the region.

This can be done in three ways: improve the advancement of ICT infrastructure across the country, pursue AI development and its research to be used extensively in the education sector and encourage students and teachers to be more ICT-based innovative with an entrepreneurial spirit. This would also help reduce the digital gap and simultaneously ignite productive economic engines.

In this case, Indonesian government intervention involving pertinent stakeholders is needed. Otherwise people would miss the golden opportunity to take part in an intellectually innovative and productive endeavor in this almost unlimited digital world and end up merely as a consumptive, uncreative segment of the Southeast Asian population.


The writer is director of the Jakarta-based Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organizations (SEAMEO) Regional Open Learning Center. He recently participated in a conference on Artificial Intelligence organized by UNESCO in Paris and a border schools workshop held by SEAMEO in Vientiane.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.