How AI can help humanity meet its biggest challenges

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The ITU’s recent  AI for Good Global Summit saw numerous solutions discussed that show the potential artificial intelligence (AI) has to help meet key sustainable development goals.

These wide-ranging goals revolve around health, education, freedom from hunger and poverty, energy and more. In an important speech, United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres said:

“Technologies including big data and analytics, artificial intelligence and automation, should help us to combat and mitigate the impact of climate change, to protect our environment, and to create conditions for growth and development that benefit everyone.”

We thought it might be interesting to put together a small sample of different ways AI is being, or will be, used for good.

Or read our earlier article on how AI is becoming the disease detective.

Cancer detection

Machine intelligence and computer imaging goes way further than just figuring out which of your photographs contain images of your mum: these days AI can analyze images to figure out if you have skin cancer and more. An international study confirmed that AI is better at detecting melanomas than dermatologists once trained to do so (95 percent versus 86.6 percent). IBM, Microsoft, and Cancer Research have all been working with AI. The ITU believes machine intelligence will help physicians identify the most effective treatment for complex cancer cases, helping cut both costs and mortality by 10 percent.

Operative blood loss? There’s an app for that

Apple Design Award winner, the iPad-only Triton Sponge app from Gauss Surgical uses AI to figure out how much blood a patient has lost by analyzing images of surgical sponges and suction canisters used during the operation. FDA approved, this app is already being used in operating rooms across the U.S. Company CEO, Siddarth Satish, believes it may in future be possible to determine how much blood an accident victim has lost using AI and the camera on a mobile device, information that will help first responders save lives. He says he invented the solution because it upset him that around 35,000 women bleed to death during childbirth and he wanted a solution to help provide warning of this.

AI for eyes

DeepMind is working with numerous providers, including Imperial College Healthcare and Moorfields Eye Hospital in the UK to train computers to diagnose eye diseases. The partnership, which focuses around use of AI and imaging, has shown promising results when analyzing retinal scans for problems including age-related macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy and glaucoma. To train the computer, researchers are using one million anonymized eye scans and diagnoses.

Smart conservation

IBM is helping to protect the last remaining rhino herds with a smart combination of IoT sensors and AI. It works like this: rangers are equipping zebra and antelopes that live near the rhinos with IoT beacons that can be monitored by locally-based sensors connected to the cloud. When rhino poachers enter the area, zebras and antelopes tend to flee. The sensors notice this activity and immediately alert game wardens who immediately visit the area to investigate, catching poachers and saving rhino.

In a related project, Researchers from the University of Wyoming have developed a system they say can identify animals accurately 99.3 percent of the time. The idea is that this helps create accurate data around species diversity and conservation.

Machine education

Personalized AI could reinforce current learning models based on teachers and classrooms. Proponents argue that AI can deliver learning experiences that meet the actual need and attainment of individual pupils. In India, a company called FitKids is using AssessED AI technology to evaluate tests and assessments in schools. The system assists teachers in creating and marking exam papers and also in building meaningful reports based on those results.

Amnesty International believes AI can make education, health, even energy more affordable. This may well be true: Hanson Robotics CEO, David Hanson, believes his company’s human-like ‘Sofia’ robot could be used to deliver medical training. “There just aren’t enough people around to deliver that,” he says in an ITU video.

Grow food better

Over 800 million people globally live in hunger due to poverty or other forms of privation. The World Food Program is exploring how AI can help it improve its response to this, both in terms of disaster response and management, communications and to help boost crop yields among smallholders by implementing smart agricultural practices.

Kristian Kersting, Professor of Machine Learning at the Technische Universität Darmstadt, is leading a team to explore ways in which AI can be used to increase crop yields through smart precision farming techniques. They hope to create an AI system that monitors crops while they grow providing real-time intelligence to help respond to crises and increase crop yields. There is even an IBM XPrize-backed team that is working to use AI to protect honeybees.

Improving energy distribution and supply

AI may help optimize production, management and distribution of water, energy and other essential resources. Silicon Valley start-up Verdigris is developing an AI to help reduce energy consumption. Seattle’s Drift uses machine learning to improve energy demand forecasts by analyzing a wide selection of different forms of data, such as internet search activity or energy infrastructure condition. On a much larger scale, General Electrics has developed Predix, AI software that interprets sensor data from energy equipment to boost operational efficiency and predict equipment failure before it takes place.

These are just a handful of examples to help illustrate the potentially profound impact of AI on helping humans meet some of the biggest challenges we face – but from health to education to food supply, it seems clear that AI will become an increasingly important factor in our response to these problems.

Jon Evans

Jon Evans is highly experienced technology journalist and editor. He has been writing for a living since 1994. These days you might read his daily regular Computerworld AppleHolic and opinion columns. Jon is also technology editor for men’s interest magazine, Calibre Quarterly, and news editor for MacFormat magazine, which is the biggest UK Mac title. He's really interested in the impact of technology on the creative spark at the heart of the human experience. In 2010 he won an American Society of Business Publication Editors (Azbee) Award for his work at Computerworld.