Delivering social change with AI at IBM

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Artificial Intelligence and the sustainable development goals: delivering social change with AI with Neil Sahota, IBM Master Inventor.

SciTech Europa Quarterly attended the UN AI for Good global summit, where the topic of discussion was how Artificial Intelligence can be delivered for social change in various ways across the public and private sectors.

We spoke to Neil Sahota, IBM Master Inventor and World Wide Business Development Leader in the IBM Watson Group; United Nations (UN) Artificial Intelligence (AI) subject matter expert; and Professor at UC Irvine, at the event about how Artificial Intelligence can be used to deliver social change to achieve to UN sustainable development goals.

As one of the founding members of the UN Artificial Intelligence for Social Good Committee, how important is AI in delivering social change for sustainable development?

Artificial Intelligence is critical for delivering social change for the goal of sustainable development. The United Nations estimates that there is a $7 trillion shortfall every year trying to achieve the sustainable development goals. The goals are for a better society and a better world, so the question of how we bridge the shortfall is very important. Emerging technology such as Artificial Intelligence is a way to bridge the gap.

What are the challenges associated with encouraging UN member nations to adopt emerging technologies?

When I first gave a talk about AI around four years ago, I was advised that there was fear among the delegates that AI would be like in the movie Terminator! The idea that AI was going to take over the world and eradicate humanity was present. However, I try to focus on the positive, and how Artificial Intelligence can be used to create more impact in services with fewer resources. Thankfully this message resonates with a lot of people and more people began to ask questions such as ‘what can we do to enable the sustainable development goals using Artificial Intelligence?’

I was a little bit surprised about how quickly the UN agencies have advanced past the initial fears. Within six months, people were talking about robot judges and the potential to improve fairness and reduce the corruption of the judicial system. The major challenge now that there is increased awareness is identifying which ideas are the right ones and which should be prioritised. I firmly believe that you should think big and start small. That is one of the reasons I wrote the book ‘Own the AI Revolution’, because I’m trying to answer that question of how people can figure out how to get started in AI.

Are partnerships between businesses and universities essential for the delivery of these technology innovations?

The partnerships are also critical. We live in an era of ecosystems where you need partnerships. Trying to do everything yourself is not the most efficient use of time, resources and money. You can bring a lot more perspectives, a lot more resources, there’s a lot more synergy if you partner with agencies, non-profits, NGOs, universities and private industries that all have slightly different goals, also slightly different perspectives, skills and knowledge. When this type of collaboration and partnership happens, we can accomplish a lot more and some initiatives like this have rapidly accelerated in terms of development because of those partnerships.

At the inception of idea, there is a tendency to focus on the task at hand rather than thinking about collaboration. The first question asked is ‘okay, how do we do it?’ rather than ‘has somebody else already done it?’ There is also some concern within academia that if universities partner too much with private industry, there may be a loss of the academic nature of the research and it will take on more of a commercial motivation.

I am a proponent of social enterprise and I want to help people create that mindset that you can do social good and make a little bit money at the same time. Achieving that is definitely going to require industry having partners in academia as well as the government agencies.

What are some of your hopes for the future of the Artificial Intelligence across UN member states?

I honestly believe that in ten years from now, 98% of everything we do, whatever services products we use, will have some element of AI to it. I would like to see the member nations pursue it with gusto to make that happen. We have already seen it where a lot of a lot of countries are realising that this is not just about making money, but to provide better public services, just to be able to run the different government agencies more efficiently. China is integrating AI in everything they can. For example, they are giving the police tools like the Google Glass recognition. In my home state of California, the legislature just officially adopted their AI roadmap for incorporating AI into public services. I’m very grateful to see some of these things happen. But I think this is just the tip of the iceberg. I think when we get a little more traction, we will have more success stories. I’m hoping the member nations really jump in with both feet and realise we need to commit to getting better public services using the technology.


Neil Sahota

IBM Master Inventor and World Wide Business Development Leader

IBM Watson Group

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