Will the proliferation of AI and machine learning reinforce the worldwide digital divide? It’s one of the questions the Global Talent Competitiveness Index (GTCI) and Global Cities Talent Competitiveness Index (GCTCI) seek to answer by benchmarking the ability of countries and cities to compete for talent. An answer has historically proven elusive, but the 7th annual reports published by Insead, Adecco Group, and Google suggest it might instead provide “significant” opportunities despite the fact that AI skills are “scarce” and “unequally distributed” across nations.

“AI is changing many facets of business and society and, if properly used and governed, has potential to foster sustainable development,” said Katell Le Goulven, executive director of the Insead Hoffmann Global Institute for Business and Society. “The GTCI report argues that with multi-stakeholder cooperation the technology could help achieve some of the SDGs [the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals] such as those related to health (via personalized remote diagnosis and big data analysis to track and reduce endemic disease). But it also points to the imperative of closing the global digital skills gap to harness the potential of AI for good.”

The GTCI 2020 took into account 70 variables (up from 68 in the GTCI 2019) in 132 national economies (up from 125) across all groups of income levels and development, representing 97% of the world’s GDP and 94% of its population. It measured those economies’ ability to enable, attract, grow, and retain talent, as in past years, as well as examining their performance in technical, vocational, and global knowledge skills.

The rankings were dominated by Europe, with only 7 non-European countries appearing in this year’s top 20: the U.S. (2nd), Singapore (3rd), Australia (10th), Canada (13th), New Zealand (16th), Japan (19th), and Israel (20th). As was the case with previous editions, top-scoring economies included a number of small nations such as Switzerland (1st), Singapore, Luxembourg (8th), Iceland (14th), and Austria (17th). With respect to the GCTCI 2020, larger metropolitan areas performed well, particularly those within the U.S.: New York (1st), San Francisco (4th), Boston (5th), and Los Angeles (9th) were among the top 10, as were London (2nd), Singapore (3rd), Hong Kong (6th), Paris (7th), Tokyo (8th), and Munich (10th).

The authors of the reports note that an increasing number of top-ranking economies — Canada, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, Finland, Taiwan, Italy, Tunisia, the U.K., the U.S., Sweden, Mexico, France, Japan, China, Kenya, Denmark, Australia, Korea, India, Germany, and Russia — have adopted some kind of national or international AI strategy. For instance, the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy is a five-year $94 million (CAD $125 million) plan to invest in AI research and talent, and France intends to spend $1.69 billion (€1.5 billion) to transform the country into a “global leader” in AI research and training.

That said, according to this year’s GTCI and GCTCI, the emergence of AI in the workplace will likely require a “massive” re-skilling of the workforce. The finding jibes with an executive survey by Gartner last year, in which 54% of respondents said they considered the skills gap the biggest challenge facing their organization.

“At all levels of qualifications, workers will need training on adaptability, social intelligence, communication, and problem-solving,” the GTCI and GCTCI authors wrote. “Life-long learning will increasingly play a key role in developing skills to foster empathy, creativity, imagination, judgment, and leadership, which are likely to continue to be human-only activities [as] cities [become] testbeds for new AI-based tools such as facial recognition, tele-surveillance, and self-driven vehicles.”

Encouragingly, the recently released 2019 AI Index report suggests that global private AI investment remains substantial. Over $70 billion was invested over the past year, with autonomous vehicles leading global investment, followed by drug and cancer research, facial recognition, video content, fraud detection, and finance. A significant portion of these projects were concentrated in Singapore, Brazil, Australia, Canada, and India, which collectively experienced the fastest growth in AI hiring from 2015 to 2019.

On a related note, Gartner reported in January 2019 that AI implementation grew a whopping 270% in the past four years and 37% in the past year alone. That’s up from 10% in 2015, which isn’t surprising considering that by some estimates, the enterprise AI market will be worth $6.14 billion by 2022. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, the subsequent labor market shifts will result in a 1.2% increase in gross domestic product growth (GDP) for the next 10 years and help capture an additional 20% to 25% in net economic benefits — $13 trillion globally — in the next 12 years.

Some firms aren’t terribly optimistic about AI’s short-term prospects, however. A survey conducted by Tata Communications found divergent views about AI between employees at Eastern and Western corporations, with about 29% of German and U.K. executives said they saw AI as having “little” or “negative” impact on innovation compared with the 95% in India that thought it had a “significant” or “slightly positive” impact.

Beyond AI’s perception problem, a separate McKinsey study published last year anticipates that 40% of jobs where men make up the majority in 10 economies (Canada, France, Germany, Japan, the U.K., the U.S., China, India, Mexico, and South America) could be displaced by automation by 2030, compared with the 52% of women-dominated jobs with high automation potential. And a March 2019 report from the U.K.’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that 10% of the U.K.’s workforce (about 1.5 million workers) occupy jobs that are at “high risk” of automation, including service workers like waiters and waitresses, retail inventory restockers, and entry-level salespeople, plus those in the agricultural, automotive, and service industries.

That’s why business leaders, governments, educators, trade unions, and others will have to work together to manage the ongoing changes and “shape a future that works for everyone,” said Kent Walker, Google senior vice president for global affairs and chief legal officer, in reference to the 2020 GTCI. “AI holds incredible potential. Like ground-breaking technologies before it, AI also will affect people’s jobs and change the nature of work.  We need to anticipate these changes and take steps to prepare for them.”