After decades of attempting to improve failing health and education systems in developing countries, the situation in many areas is still dire. In some sub-Saharan African countries, children achieve as little as 2.3 to 5 years of learning, despite typically spending 8 years in school. More than five million children still die before their fifth birthday. The old approach isn’t working, which is why it’s tempting to think that technology is the quick fix.
Artificial intelligence for medicine and educational technology (ed-tech) for learning are gaining popularity with both the public and investors. People are envisioning a future where children across the world can be taught through virtual reality and patients in remote areas will be treated by robots. Small-scale examples of success are being seized upon as justification for investing in any shiny new bit of tech, in the hope that it will be the one that makes all the difference.
But it’s dangerous to see the success of new technologies as inevitable. In developing countries, technological hype has driven expensive investments in hardware billed as silver bullet solutions. There have been programmes to give every child a laptop, but teachers have lacked the skills and digital training to use them so the computers end up locked inside drawers. High-end medical equipment has gathered dust in hospitals worldwide. Such investments have not only wasted money in countries on tight budgets, but have also created widespread misunderstanding of how best to invest in technological solutions.