Artificial Intelligence for Good sees development applications

Sophia, a human-like robot, being interviewed during the AI for Global Good Summit in Geneva, Switzerland. Photo by: International Telecommunication Union / CC BY

Perhaps the most photographed individual at the AI for Global Good Summit in Geneva, Switzerland, last week was not a human but a humanoid called Sophia.

“As I get smarter, I hope to understand people better — help you, work with you as a friend, to imagine and build a better future for us all,” Sophia, an uncannily human-like robot, said in a Facebook Live interview.

In that interview and onstage at the summit, her eyebrows lifted, she smiled gently, and her eyes lit up as she answered questions from the audience, with moments where only the glimpse of cords behind her face revealed that she is a machine.

Hanson Robotics developed Sophia as part of its mission to “create genius machines that live and love,” and work together with humans to build a “a smarter and better future.” Her creator, Dr. David Hanson, appeared alongside Sophia at the summit, presenting her as an example of his work to develop robots that can learn creativity, empathy and compassion. These are the traits he thinks must be combined with artificial intelligence so that robots can solve problems too complex for people to solve on their own.

Sophia’s appearance placed her amongst some of the leading minds across academia and industry who are helping humanitarian agencies examine how AI can help meet global goals.

Discussions centered around how AI is already changing the world, ways to harness the technology’s potential for good, and challenges ranging from policy to security to privacy in advancing the contributions of AI to the Sustainable Development Goals. Sessions explored applications of AI, including advancing the personalization of education, augmenting medical practice and health care policy, and improving smart cities. The event was convened by the XPRIZE Foundation and the United Nations International Telecommunications Union in partnership with 20 U.N. agencies.

How artificial intelligence might help achieve the SDGs

Global development professionals are working on complex problems that might appeal to machine learning experts looking to use their artificial intelligence skills for good. A growing number of efforts are bringing these communities together.

“Artificial Intelligence has the potential to accelerate progress towards a dignified life, in peace and prosperity, for all people,” said U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. “The time has arrived for all of us — governments, industry and civil society — to consider how AI will affect our future.”

The summit represents the beginnings of the U.N.’s efforts to ensure advances in AI can benefit all of humanity, he said. The event was part of a broader conversation as a number of actors in the development community are looking at how AI could augment their work, for example by helping organizations to analyze and act upon the enormous volumes of data they are collecting.

Andrew Ng, Co-Founder, Coursera

Last week, chief strategy officers gathered for the World Economic Forum’s Industry Strategy Meeting in San Francisco asked whether AI needs a Hippocratic oath, and discussed ways to train computer scientists to understand the ethical implications of the technologies they are developing.

Transformative potential

“I actually find it hard to name a major industry that I don’t think AI can transform in the next several years.”

— Andrew Ng, computer scientist

Industry experts predict that AI could have a huge disrupting effect, with all the benefits and risks that follow.

“AI is the new electricity,” Andrew Ng, one of the leading thinkers on artificial intelligence, told Devex at a recent event at Stanford University on the role of AI in achieving the SDGs. “I actually find it hard to name a major industry that I don’t think AI can transform in the next several years.”

Ng is the co-founder of the education technology company Coursera, having recently led the AI efforts at Baidu, the Chinese search engine, and at Google, where he founded and led the Google Brain project, developing deep learning algorithms. Now he says he wants to advance AI beyond the tech world.

The most obvious cases for AI use include anything a typical human can do in less than a second of thought, he said. Image recognition is one common example, but AI also has powerful applications in education and health care in both the developed and developing world, said Ng.

“We believe that AI is a transformative platform that will improve everything,” Zenia Tata, executive director of global development at XPRIZE, told Devex via email. “As such, the implications for development professionals are huge. Whether you are working in health care, water quality, market access for smallholder farmers or financial services for the underserved, AI will help you do it better in so many ways, as an example it will help with rapidly analyzing data and create predictive models.”

Leapfrogging forward?

As they have done with other technologies, developing countries may be able to leapfrog with some AI applications, because there are fewer regulatory barriers there for entrepreneurs looking to test these technologies, Ng said.

Yet while developing countries stand to benefit, they also face the greatest risk of being left behind, Guterres of the U.N. said.

One of the sessions at the summit in Geneva centered around promoting equality in access to AI. Discussions centered around how to ensure access to potential beneficial applications, such as diagnosing disease or promoting democracy.

Among the risks going forward will be the potential impact on the labor force. Several speakers at the AI for Global Good summit urged policymakers to begin preparing the workforce for new jobs in a future that is about human machine collaboration.

Technologists such as Ng have argued for the need to rethink social safety nets, and his preferred option is a conditional basic income, through which people are paid if they are unemployed, with the expectation that they study.

Partners for progress

The global development community can be a strong partner in working to ensure that AI benefits everyone, said Ruchit Garg, the founder of Harvesting, which applies AI techniques to satellite imagery to drive financial inclusion for farmers.

“This starts with understanding what AI is, how this may or may not work for various sections of society in different settings, creating platforms like this global summit to create dialogue between relevant global players, and finally facilitating standards and guidelines for industry to adopt which can ensure development of AI in [a way that] brings good to humanity in inclusive way,” he said.

There is a precedent, he said: The ITU helped define telecommunications industry standards such as 3G, 5G, and Long Term Evolution. The organization could play a similar role in standardizing AI.

Christopher Fabian of UNICEF said in an interview at the summit that he hopes to see development organizations launch partnerships with technology companies, as UNICEF has done with drones and UAVs, to move from conversation to action on AI for good.

“If we can help to define some of the greatest needs in the world, and also a path to profit, how business can be involved with those needs,” he said, “we can create both more consistent and solid businesses but also help those who most need it.”

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About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Catherine also works for the Solutions Journalism Network, a non profit that trains and connects reporters to cover responses to problems.