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WIC2019 - Business Leaders' Dialogue: Turning today's digital revolution into a development revolution

​Speech by Malcolm Johnson, ITU Deputy Secretary-General

Sixth Wuzhen World Internet Conference - "Business Leaders' Dialogue - Turning today's digital revolution into a development revolution"

20 October 2019 - Wuzhen, China

​Good afternoon. 

We are in the midst of a digital revolution, driven by new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), cloud computing, Big Data, Internet of Things (IoT), 5G etc. These emerging technologies are changing our economies at tremendous speed and scale. AI alone is estimated to contribute around US$13 trillion of output globally by 2030. This would put AI in the category of general-purpose technologies that have transformed humanity throughout history. It is why Google CEO Sundar Pichai did not hesitate to claim that artificial intelligence is more profound than electricity or fire.  

For example, advances in knowledge discovery and data mining hold tremendous promise for the healthcare industry. It is early days, but AI-powered technologies such as skin disease recognition and diagnostic applications based on symptom questions could be deployed on 6 billion smartphones by 2021.  It is why ITU and the World Health Organization (WHO) have launched an initiative to leverage the power of artificial intelligence for health. The demand for this a platform was identified at ITU's annual “AI for Good Global Summit" in Geneva. The objective is to develop evaluation methods to assess the degree to which 'AI for Health' use cases have achieved 'Proof of Concept'. It is important that the technology used in the health sector complies with international standards to ensure interoperability and security, and that the radio equipment operates in harmonized radio frequency bands to avoid harmful interference. The development of international standards for ICT equipment and services, and the harmonization of the world-wide use of the radio spectrum are ITU's core competencies. So, when it comes to digital health, clearly ITU and WHO collaboration is essential.

Then there is the automotive industry. Last July, several Chinese provinces started to implement the “China VI" vehicle emission standards ahead of schedule so as to ramp up efforts against air pollution. Future smart and safe mobility will impact billions of people's lives for the better. It is why carmakers such as Volkswagen Group, Hyundai – and a diverse range of other automotive industry players such as China's Telematics Industry Application Alliance, Bosch, BlackBerry, Tata Communications and Mitsubishi Electric – have joined ITU in recent years.

We see similar remarkable breakthroughs in digital financial services. Banking services are now being brought to people through mobile connection and digital identity. To ensure interoperability, security and quality of service the “Financial Inclusion Global Initiative" (FIGI) was established by ITU, the World Bank Group, and the Committee on Payments and Market Infrastructures with the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It brings together all stakeholders, including the regulators from the telecom sector and those from the financial sector, to develop policies and interoperable standards to accelerate digital financial inclusion. The next FIGI Symposium is planned for 2-5 June 2020 in Brazil.

International technical standards are essential to ensure that these new technologies are deployed efficiently and at scale. International standards ensure interoperability, create competition in the global market, protect and encourage key investments, and reduce costs through economies of scale. International standards supporting these new technologies will be essential for the realization of every single one of the UN's sustainable development goals.

To achieve these goals, we need everyone everywhere to be connected to broadband services. But right now, almost half the world's population remains unconnected to the Internet. These people are mainly those living in rural, remote and isolated communities. But here, too, new technologies are coming along that will help – technologies such as low-earth orbiting satellite networks and high-altitude platforms which both promise to provide world-wide coverage at affordable prices. These technologies, and many more, are on the agenda of ITU's World Radiocommunication Conference which will start in Sharm-El-Sheik next week. This conference will update the Radio Regulations, the international treaty on the use of the radio spectrum and satellite orbits.

Now, let me give you two examples I experienced recently of how this digital revolution is turning into a development revolution.

Some months back I was taken to visit a village school in a remote part of Kenya where a satellite company had installed a downlink to provide online educational courses bring information and knowledge from around the world onto large blackboards in the classrooms. It was so satisfying to see the enthusiasm and excitement of the pupils, and teachers, to take advantage of this huge increase in potential learning they now had available. The connection to the classrooms was by means of WiMAX which meant it also offered communications to the surrounding village. The school is provided the courses free of charge, but communications is charged at a low fee to help offset costs.

Then a few weeks ago I was taken to see the implementation of a project in Thailand which had won a prize at this year's World Summit on Information Society Forum in Geneva. A small village was taking advantage of recently being connected to broadband, as part of the Thai government's drive to connect rural areas, in order to sell its rice online. In a short time, profits had risen 300%, but what was particularly pleasing was that the young generation were returning to the village from the city, with their children. In fact, the head of the village had previously been a telecom engineer working in Bangkok for many years. The farm I visited now has four generations living on it. The village school is now connected, and pupils are using laptops. One thing the head of the village wanted to emphasize was how much better was the quality of life there than in Bangkok. It shows how connectivity can help reverse the trend of urbanization, which is one of the world's major challenges, by bringing better productivity, education, healthcare and financial inclusion to the rural areas as well as the opportunity for developing innovations online and launching startups from home.   

To achieve this, we all need to work together. There are so many different organizations now using this technology for the common good. But there is a lot of duplication of effort. A lack of coordination. Resources are being wasted. Proprietary technology is being implemented resulting in a lack of interoperability. This is true at the national, regional and international level. It is why I am continually advocating collaboration and why ITU is open to forming partnerships with others working towards the common good. We each need to bring our own specific competencies to the table, avoid duplication and pool our resources. Everyone needs to be aware of the benefits and threats. There is so much good we can do by working together. Only by doing so will we turn today's digital revolution into a development revolution, for all.

Thank you.