There are over four billion existing internet users in 2021, but another three billion have yet to join the digital population, often through illiteracy. The economic power of access to digital communications has been proven over and over in Africa and Asia. Farmers and fishermen find the market with the best price for their goods, microloans enable access to clean water, and migrant workers no longer need to trudge for days to give cash to their families and in the process losing wages. Phone-based educational systems are already reaching into remote areas, as well as powerful medical management systems, and SMS-based systems such as M-PESA provide vital financial services to 50 million unbanked.

Yet the illiterate can communicate vocally, and this is the route by which we can bring them into the digital economy and provide access to all the benefits, not least of which is education. We already have significant conversational AI technology that can both recognise and synthesize hundreds of languages and adding others is no longer a major exercise. This opens a potential route to improving the lives of the digitally disenfranchised, especially women who are disproportionally likely to be illiterate.

Voice recognition systems require either reasonably fast network connection for cloud processing or require the latest generation of chipsets. Both put voice technology out of the reach of our intended audience. However technology always gets cheaper as well as faster, and today’s dedicated chips such as Google Tensor have the potential to embed voice interfaces in every device. Once optimized for power consumption and in mass production, a friendly licensing scheme for low-cost chipsets would enable vastly more people access to this technology. The growth in users would, of course, drive revenue to offset lower licensing returns. Once in place, growing an active ecosystem is simple as we already have the necessary low-cost and easy-to-use development tools.

Today voice is a convenience for us in the developer world, but it has the has the potential to be transformative for the illiterate. Bringing another billion people online will transform their lives and their economies. Appropriate educational, social, medical, banking and commercial systems can emerge to serve new ecosystems in ways that we cannot imagine today.