Can AI be a force for social good?

By Drew Payne

AI for social good
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Artificial intelligence (AI) seems to be everywhere. From automating routine administrative tasks and streamlining operations to enhancing customer experiences, AI is impacting virtually every aspect of the business world. As just one example, JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon recently noted that the bank is working on more than 300 AI use cases, while investing over $2 billion in building cloud-based data centers.   

Given its prevalence in everything from virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa to self-driving cars, there’s no reason to think AI won’t also impact mission-driven organizations and their work in addressing some of the world’s most pressing social issues. The question, though, is whether AI’s potential benefits will outweigh any possible risks so that the individuals such applications were intended to help won’t actually be harmed by their use.

To start with the positive, numerous examples of the ways in which AI can be used for social good already exist. Amnesty International recently collaborated with ElementAI, for instance, to demonstrate how AI can be used in training human moderators to identify and quantify online abuse against women. Similarly, IIT Madras and Google Research teamed to help ARMMAN build a predictive AI model to prevent expectant mothers in India from dropping out of supportive telehealth outreach programs.    

As with AI in business, mission-driven organizations (many of which are resource-constrained and must find innovative ways to do more with less) are using AI to improve efficiency, make better decisions, and increase their impact on the communities they serve by automating repetitive tasks, analyzing large datasets, and identifying patterns and insights that humans may miss. 

A recent report by the McKinsey Global Institute indicates that AI capabilities are (or could be) especially meaningful in meeting social challenges in four key areas where use would likely be high and a large population impacted. 

– Healthcare and hunger – The healthcare space has been a true pioneer in using AI to meet health and hunger challenges, including early-stage diagnoses, optimized food distribution channels, and disease transmission prediction. AI-enabled wearable devices, for example, have been developed to detect early signs of diabetes through heart rate sensor data, offering the potential to help more than 400 million diabetics worldwide.

– Education – From maximizing student achievement to improving teacher productivity, AI could play a prominent role in the education space. AI to detect student distress, for example, is already being developed. More than 1.5 billion students could also benefit from using adaptive learning technology, tailoring content to students based on past success and engagement with teaching materials. 

– Security and justice – One of the most basic functions of government is to protect and prevent citizens from harm, both from crime and other physical dangers. With that in mind, AI is being used to track criminals and mitigate on-the-job bias. Using data from IoT devices, AI is also creating solutions, for example, to help firefighters determine safe paths through burning buildings.

– Equality and inclusion – AI is playing a role in reducing or eliminating bias based on race, sexual orientation, religion, citizenship, and disabilities – issues that have dominated the headlines over the past decade. In one such use case, based on work by Affectiva, AI was used to automate emotion recognition and provide social cues to help individuals along the autism spectrum interact in social environments.

While the social benefits of AI are potentially plentiful, there are very definite risks associated with its use. Because we humans control AI (at least right now), it’s not hard to visualize a future scenario in which AI is manipulated to create immense profits or gain political control. In his book, “Will Computers Revolt? Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence,” AI pioneer Charles Simon suggests, “While science fiction usually presents pictures of armed conflict, I believe that the greater threat comes from [AI’s] ability to sway opinion or manipulate markets. Unfortunately, corporations and individual humans have historically sacrificed the long-term common good for short-term wealth and power.”

Clearly, AI, like other technologies, has the potential to be exploited. Biases, for example, can be embedded in AI models which, in turn, could worsen existing inequalities. The difficulty in making AI-generated decisions transparent could inhibit use, particularly with respect to sensitive subjects.

To calm such fears and promote adherence to ethical principles for societal benefit, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has developed guidelines for creating trustworthy AI. OECD’s Principles on AI state that AI should be driving inclusive growth and sustainable development; designed to respect the rule of law, human rights, democratic values, and diversity; transparent so people can understand AI outcomes; robust, safe and secure; and deployed with accountability so that organizations can be held responsible for AI systems they develop and use. 

Ultimately, the responsibility for developing ethical AI and using it to deliver positive social impact will rest with all of us. Recent developments suggest that there is a tremendous opportunity for AI to add value to the work being done by mission-driven organizations and make truly meaningful strides in addressing the societal issues which plague our world. To get there, though, it is essential for non-profit organizations, foundations, and impact investors to partner with AI experts now so that the application of this emerging technology for societal benefit remains a prime consideration as AI evolves.

About the author

Drew Payne

Drew Payne is an ardent advocate for education, healthcare, and community advancement, who thrives at the intersection of innovation and impact. As founder and CEO of UpMetrics, an industry-leading impact measurement and management software company, Payne’s journey has been defined by his unwavering commitment to helping mission-driven organizations harness the power of their data to drive capital and resources to community. For more information, visit

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