Responsible technology can transform millions of lives

(Ahead of its annual Davos meeting, the World Economic Forum warns of risks from slowing global growth and economic inequality. Writing in the Financial Times, Ant Financial chairman and CEO Eric Jing describes how technology companies can work directly to help small companies and the underprivileged. )

The world has started 2019 in a turbulent mood. While global companies have enough cash to weather the economic winter and re¬invest for growth, small businesses are much more vulnerable and survival will be a priority.

Last autumn, we at Ant Financial helped organise an exhibition highlighting 100 lives that were transformed by the internet. They included a rural millennial live-streaming from his Gansu chicken farm, a cancer patient saved by online health insurance, and an ex-convict who started an e-tailoring shop with sewing skills learnt in prison.

Looking through the exhibit, what struck me was both the immense potential for technology to help underprivileged people, and how many more lives are still waiting to be touched.

Today, global technology continues to advance at a dazzling pace — from the increasing availability of faster internet to artificial intelligence and quantum computing. But there are also growing calls in various countries to look inwards. That has brought about a chill in global co-operation and trade.

If the situation worsens, inevitably ordinary people will bear most of the pain. That means responsible organisations must take up their cause and make sure they are not left behind.

The economist Paul Romer, who won a 2018 Nobel Prize for research into how technological change can be transformative, recently described his concerns over policies that impede the free flow of new knowledge and insights. He believes they are especially detrimental to nations that run the danger of being left behind.

Even within the developed world, there are increasing concerns of how a growing “digital divide” can hurt underserved populations. Recent research in the US revealed that nearly one in five teenagers are not always able to finish their homework because they lack access to a computer or the internet.

There are no easy solutions, but one area that bears looking at is how technology can improve access to basic financial products and services, such as business and education loans, investments for savings, and health insurance. We must make these more affordable for small businesses and individuals around the world.

In this area, Ant is following in the footsteps of giants: the late Jing Shuping founded the privately owned China Minsheng Bank, which has grown over the years by focusing on lending to underserved small and medium-sized enterprises, and Muhammad Yunus, another Nobel laureate whose Grameen Bank pioneered microcredit in Bangladesh.

About 2bn individuals and 200m small businesses in emerging economies lack access to formal savings and credit, the consultancy McKinsey estimates. They have no safe way to save and invest their money, and must rely on informal lenders and personal networks for credit. That is because many traditional financial institutions still fear the higher risks that these small borrowers represent.

Responsible technology companies can help by sharing their innovations with banks and other institutions, to ease their concerns about underserved customers. By applying artificial intelligence and risk management technologies, for instance, companies such as mine can help banks reduce loan default rates down to levels that are many times lower than the global average.

There are also many other ways that technology companies can work directly with small businesses to help them harness innovations such as AI and blockchain to their advantage. For example, small retailers that cannot afford the high costs of setting up call centres could use well-trained AI chatbots to handle some customer queries. And food manufacturers can deploy blockchain through low-cost QR codes that track products through the supply chain. Guaranteed provenance and purity would allow them to charge premium prices.

Some small entrepreneurs are already taking matters into their own hands, with available technology. Take Jiang Jinchun, who was featured in our photo exhibition. Using his mobile phone, the native of Jiangxi province has live-streamed the picking and drying of bamboo shoots, tea leaves and other specialities in his village of 200 households. That has helped their produce become “hot commodities” throughout China.

By tapping technology in creative ways, we can work together to benefit more small businesses and individuals worldwide. Doing so will bring significant benefits not just for local communities, but to the wider global economy. And that’s something our world urgently needs today.

This article was previously published by the Financial Times.
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