Our world faces some sobering challenges. I see them every day in my role with IBM corporate citizenship and in my work to advance the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals as an IMPACT 2030 Executive Committee Member.
But there’s reason to be hopeful. Artificial intelligence (AI) combined with our human ingenuity is helping us “do good” in new and better ways. And I’m optimistic about bringing these new capabilities to bear against important problems like disease, natural disasters, aging populations, pollution and illiteracy.
In addition to producing insights about an entire population or ecosystem, AI technology can also get very personal.
Recent IBM research highlights a broad swath of progress in applying AI technology for societal good — and many inspiring projects. In reflecting on these examples, I can’t help but think that AI, used wisely, might just be the social change catalyst of our lifetime.
With its ability to extract insights from massive amounts of data – much of it unstructured, such as free-form text, images and speech – AI helps us pinpoint where to take action. For example, it could help a charitable agency spot communities most in need by analyzing aerial footage for thatched versus metal roofs. With the ability to learn from every patient treatment, social work case or environmental impact assessment, AI helps us identify patterns that can lead to early intervention and potentially widespread improvement.
In addition to producing insights about an entire population or ecosystem, AI technology can also get very personal. With that deep understanding, “intelligent advisers” can help professionals find ways to appeal to each individual who opts in, more effectively motivating us to comply with medical advice, stick with our studies, choose greener products, avoid risky behaviors, or take preventative measures when needed. For example, a pharmacy could use AI to learn over time which types of reminders best motivate a particular person to take medications as prescribed, and schedule doctor’s visits at proper intervals.
We already crowdfund for causes, participate in social network fundraising events, even contribute spare computing power to advance scientific research. But now we can choose to contribute our personal “life experiences” to trusted AI systems that will use them for the greater good. And we don’t have to give up our privacy to do so. Every intervention with a foster child, unemployed worker, or person struggling with substance abuse helps us learn how to better help other individuals in similar circumstances.
Across social services, education, health, public safety and the environment, progress on social issues is interconnected. By encouraging transparency across agencies and organizations, and connecting the dots – where permitted – across disparate data sources, AI solutions can facilitate collaboration and enable better outcomes.
Solving an issue in one area often helps another. For example, improving safety in local parks can encourage more exercise leading to better health. Complex societal issues like mental health treatment, drug addiction, poverty and pollution are better tackled in ecosystems rather than in organizational or data silos.
It’s hard to imagine a role or profession that won’t eventually be using these technologies. While it may automate some aspects of work, we expect AI — like other transformative technologies from the steam engine to the Internet — will ultimately create more jobs. We need to focus on preparing more people with the technology skills needed to partner effectively with these systems.
Even with the best combination of human and machine capabilities, we may not see comprehensive solutions to these complex problems for many years to come. But we are making progress. The examples from this research show how quickly AI capabilities are advancing. And perhaps just as importantly, these early breakthroughs are igniting hope for a safer, healthier and more just world.
This story first appeared on Forbes.com.
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