Artificial intelligence is a promising technology. What if it were used in service to the common good?
Many have seized on the opportunities provided by AI to tackle some of society’s greatest challenges, particularly in the fields of medicine, education, and the environment. Many such projects take advantage of the combined force of multiple fields of expertise: artificial intelligence, industry, civil society, and entrepreneurship.
One of the best known of these initiatives is AI for Good, which is the subject of an annual world summit sponsored by the United Nations that, since 2017, has been showcasing some of the most promising uses of artificial intelligence in three domains: health, education, and the environment.
Initiatives in Health
Detecting Diseases Sooner
Artificial intelligence can play a role in disease prevention, such as breast cancer (more than 50,000 new cases were diagnosed in the UK in 2020, almost 30,000 in Canada, and over 250,000 in the USA).
A key to controlling this disease is to detect it as early as possible. The naked eye, even if it belongs to an expert, can miss certain preliminary signs. At this early stage, AI offers invaluable assistance, among other things, by helping healthcare professionals identify the patients most at risk.
In 2019, a team at MIT developed an AI program that can “see” far more than a human physician by detecting subtle anomalies. The results are impressive: an algorithm that can predict breast cancer risk up to four years before it would be spotted by a doctor using traditional imagery!
How is this AI program able to achieve such remarkable results?
The system draws its strength from the sheer number of images used to train it: 90,000 digitized mammograms and known outcomes from over 60,000 patients.
Developing Treatment Plans
AI can also be used to help develop the best possible course of treatment for a patient. Like all diseases, breast cancer is very complex, and many factors need to be taken into account.
The European DESIREE project focuses specifically on developing a system to support physician decision-making around breast cancer treatment. Concretely, this web-based software “ecosystem” gathers experience from thousands of cases and outcomes, analyzing the information entered for a patient in light of everything that is known about previous cases.
Expanding Access to Care
Access to healthcare and finding the right doctor can be costly and time-consuming.
Babylon Health, a virtual healthcare platform with operations in the UK and Rwanda, partnered with Telus, a Canadian telecommunications company, to provide accessible and affordable healthcare services using AI.
Currently, the application is available in both English and French and draws on more than 500 million medical knowledge streams to assess a user’s symptoms!
Initiatives in Education
Artificial intelligence is also making inroads into the classroom, where it can significantly boost achievement.
Helping Students Learn to Write
That’s what the startup Kaligo set out to do when it responded to a call for projects launched by the French Ministry of Education in 2013. Three years of research went into this initiative, which involved the IntuiDoc team at IRISA (a French laboratory for R&D in digital science and technology) and INSA (the French National Institute of Applied Sciences). The result is an application that teaches students to write using a tablet and stylus, beginning with the letters of the alphabet and a few simple words.
Teaching students to read is one of education’s most critical challenges. To meet this challenge, the U.S.-based startup Square Panda designed a system that uses adaptive learning and AI to create a customized learning experience for every student.
Initiatives in Ecology and Humanitarian Relief
Predicting Global Disasters
In associating AI with the common good, one issue that comes up is famine. There are multiple factors to this issue, including climate change, political instability, poverty, and food price variations.
In September 2018, the UN, World Bank, and International Committee of the Red Cross joined together to launch an initiative called the Famine Action Mechanism (FAM), the first global mechanism dedicated to predicting famine. The aim is to improve international food aid by anticipating and preparing for and responding faster to famines by distributing aid before the crisis. Artificial intelligence detects correlations between different risks and uses them to provide early warnings.
Cleaning Up the World's Oceans
AI can also support initiatives aimed at protecting the planet, particularly by cleaning up the oceans, which, as you know, are littered with massive amounts of plastic. Some NGOs have taken it upon themselves to address this environmental concern.
One initiative is The Ocean Cleanup project, whose goal is to use artificial intelligence technology to extract plastic from the oceans, reducing pollution.
Reducing Building Emissions
Work has been carried out in the construction sector to test automated building energy management systems. The results are extremely encouraging, with a reduced energy consumption of 18% in office buildings and 14% in shops. This is a promising example of how artificial intelligence can help reduce emissions in a sector that accounts for around 55% of global electricity consumption (according to the UN).
As seen above, AI can be used to support environmental initiatives, of which there are many more examples than the ones given here. Some of these include using AI in urban settings to optimize energy consumption, combat food waste, and reduce traffic congestion.
Initiatives in medicine, education, the environment, and humanitarian relief show that AI can contribute to changing the world in positive ways.
AI can be a tool to promote human welfare, enabling us to do bigger things, and do them faster.
Now that you have discovered some of the opportunities offered by AI, let’s turn to the ethical challenges.