We tend to think of artificial intelligence either as something hypothetical and completely disconnected from the ‘real world’, or as the domain of the finance and sales industries. And it’s not surprising: in the daily barrage of corporate news on emerging tech, the idea that the same technology can be used to benefit all of us – as well as the environment – is all too often overlooked. So the ultimate question is: can AI change the world for the better?
To help us answer this tough question, we have with us Dr Valeria Sadovykh – a Big 4 Consulting Emerging Technology Global Delivery Lead. She provides valuable insights into the potential of AI to help resolve major global issues, recognized as areas requiring action and attention. An expert in the field of technology consultancy, Dr. Sadovykh has over a decade of experience in the industry, as well as being an esteemed scholar and keynote speaker. Her academic work, including the Information Systems PhD thesis for which she received the prestigious Dean’s List Award, focuses primarily on socially responsive AI, decision intelligence, and the societal and individual impact of emerging technology. In a professional capacity, she leads strategic IT development projects in the areas of digital transformation, mass customization, intelligent automation, and Industry 4.0.
Technology improving the quality of life
As a matter of fact, AI has a multitude of applications that could help to tackle major societal and environmental issues. “The emerging tech that addresses poverty, hunger, crisis response, education, climate change, sustainability, national disasters, and others in correspondence to the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals is the most exciting,” says Dr Sadovykh. The Goals, to be reached by 2030, were developed in 2015 alongside 169 associated targets. “Those are the most critical societal challenges that should be foremost tackled by individuals and organizations. Working for those initiatives is a privilege as you as an individual can see the positive impact of your work on society and individuals and overall help make a better future for our generation and generations to come.”
Applying AI to improve the quality of both human life and the environment is more than a hypothetical concept: in fact, existing AI functionality already has the potential to help meet the SDGs. A 2018 report by McKinsey identified 160 AI social impact use cases, finding that practical examples of artificial intelligence are already being applied in about 30% of these.
One direct example is the IBM Watson. Originally developed in 2011 as a question-answering system – famously appearing on the quiz show Jeopardy – it is now being applied for social good in a number of sectors. In healthcare, for instance, Watson has been used by Mayo Clinic to match patients more effectively with appropriate clinical trials, while an initiative by IBM Watson Health has developed AI-powered biometric tracking, with the purpose of tackling opioid addiction. USAA’s advisory system providing advice to military members transitioning to civilian life is also based on IBM Watson. More recently, IBM Watson Advertising announced a new project offering brands access to data, insights, and AI tech in an effort to solve global issues.
Watson is by no means the only AI out there with socially and environmentally beneficial applications, and IBM is just one of the companies working towards engineering a better future. Numerous tech startups contribute to the positive social impact of emerging technologies. One example is ScoreFast – the machine learning platform developed by the company ScoreData. The platform uses patient care analytics to enable healthcare providers to offer more efficient services. Advanced analytics give the platform the functionality to promote wellbeing and more effective treatments and disease prevention in response to several of the SDG’s health targets.
According to Vas Bhandarkar, CEO of ScoreData, “Companies like ScoreData are solving the predictive patient behavior problem by computing propensities for readmission and delivering a sequence of nudges that help the patient take medicines on time, exercise at the right time of day, eat well, and rest well.”
AI alone won’t solve all of the world’s problems
Naturally, AI is only one of the tools at our disposal, and can’t be expected to resolve every issue. “There are still 3 things that are drivers to success for any organization: people, process, and technology. We can’t afford to invest in one and neglect another,” warns Dr Sadovykh. “Investing in tech is not a solution if you don’t have an easily-defined adjustable process and an intelligent flexible workforce that has their heart in what they do.”
In regards to applying AI for social good, the workforce is actually one of the key constraints. Alongside data accessibility, the insufficient AI talent is a major bottleneck where tackling societal issues with emerging tech is concerned. The lack of powerful infrastructures presents further challenges, as do the ethical considerations and potential biases.
Working alongside machines
Another aspect of AI with potentially widespread social impact is that as emerging tech becomes more sophisticated, adaptable, and geared towards specific tasks, the adoption of artificial intelligence for traditional jobs is virtually unavoidable. “I think we are on the edge of Industry 4.0 and entering Industry 5.0.,” says Dr Sadovykh. “So, we are moving from Digitalization (Industry 4.0) to Personalization (Industry 5.0). It will be a synergy between man and machine, as human intelligence works in harmony with cognitive computing.”
Broadly speaking, AI could provide positive social impact by taking over dangerous or repetitive tasks. Although many find this idea worrisome – fearing for the collapse of traditional labor and for entire professions becoming redundant – responsible application of AI could make workplaces safer and more oriented towards professional development.
“We should not be scared to lose our jobs,” reassures Dr Sadovykh. “Quite the opposite, as more intellect will be required and new skills will be necessary. The collaborative workplace between humans and machines will be beneficial for all in the long term. All we need to do is keep an open mind.”
Indeed, research conducted by PwC UK revealed that AI has the potential to create 38.2 million new jobs across the global economy. The same study found that responsibly leveraging AI for environmental applications could contribute up to $5.2 trillion to the global economy in 2030, all while reducing worldwide greenhouse gas emissions by 4%. In light of such promising predictions, there’s no doubt that with a responsible approach and a concentrated effort, AI will contribute to making our world a better place.