AI for Good — Time to move the needle

AI for Good — Time to move the needle

By Fred Werner

Head of Strategic Engagement, ITU Standardization Bureau

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has great potential to help us solve humanity’s biggest challenges. From combatting climate changeto cleaner energy to affordable health care and global pandemic response, the potential is there. However, our race to capture value from the technology challenges our ability to fully leverage AI to improve our quality of life and the world we live in. In order to use AI to make a difference, we must use AI for Good.

So what is good?

Different societies have different priorities, and a different understanding of what is “good”. So how do we know what global challenges to work on? That is easy... We have the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to guide us. A set of goals to improve the quality and sustainability of life on Earth by 2030.

For example, AI can help:

  • 1.7 billion unbanked individuals gain access to digital financial services;
  • reduce 1.3 million deaths annually on our roads;
  • translate and educate in 2000 African languages;
  • monitor and protect ecosystems;
  • lower public health costs for millions;
  • elevate the quality of data collection during pandemics without sacrificing privacy; and
  • improve the quality and accessibility of civic services in overcrowded cities.

Moving the needle

The potential is undoubtedly there, but we are running out of time. We have 10 years left to achieve the 17 SDGs. AI solutions that we identify today need a few years to develop, a few more years to achieve scale, and then a few years after that to achieve the desired impact.

At a minimum, we are looking at a 10-year timeline, bringing us right up to 2030.

We have to act now if we want to move the needle.

Scaling AI for Good

There is no shortage of innovative AI for Good applications and use cases; from the use of smartphones for early diagnosis of disease and pandemic contact tracing, to robotics for increased agricultural productivity, machine learning for enhanced cybersecurity and optimized telecommunication networks.


However, it is one thing to develop a solution in a high-tech lab and another thing to deploy and scale these solutions across developing countries, being mindful of harsh conditions on the ground and the societal, financial and political challenges involved.

Connecting “problem owners” with “AI innovators” needs to be as easy as ordering an Uber if we are serious about scaling AI for good. We need to help people speak the same language and identify open algorithms and publicly available data sets to help them solve their challenges.

The world needs an AI and Data commons as an enabling platform to scale AI for Good problem solving.

Firing on all cylinders

We have reached a landmark where half the world’s population is online. While some might see this as an amazing achievement, the fact remains that 50 percent of the population remains unconnected. This is the equivalent of a V8 engine only firing on four cylinders. We are not benefiting from the shared art, culture, music, creativity, knowledge, wisdom and potential problem-solving power of half the planet. It is crucial that we connect the remaining 50 per cent, so that we can start firing on all cylinders.

The eye in the sky

A number of the SDG targets could help to be achieved by tracking from space. For example, AI-powered satellite imagery analysis can be used to predict and prevent deforestation, track livestock with great accuracy, map poverty, provide data analytics for micro-insurance to small-hold farmers.

This is a potential game changer that requires massive-scale collaboration and significant funding. If we cannot see the needle, we cannot move it.

Will we become irrelevant?

AI is an extremely powerful technology that is not without its own risks and challenges. We must be vigilant that AI develops in safe, secure, trusted and inclusive manner for all. We must be mindful of inherent biases already baked into our systems and avoid unintentionally codifying the worst of human behavior into future algorithms.

Will AI put us all out of work or even worse, make us irrelevant? AI experts themselves say that AI is too important to leave it to the experts alone. This issue affects every person, every company, every institution, and every government. It is imperative that we bring as many voices as possible to the table.

What do we want?

Through all of this, we should not lose sight of what is humanity, our own intelligence and what it is we truly want. It is often easier to blame technology, focusing on our fears and “what if” scenarios rather than discussing our core values and charting a beneficial path forward for humankind. If we do not know what we want for our future, how can we move the needle?

Audacious challenges

Many current global challenges seem impossible to solve and companies, institutions and governments alike do not have the means or the will to tackle them head on. Solutions can actually come from anyone, anywhere.

We need to find innovative ways to incentivize and mobilize the power of the crowd, combined with AI to unlock new breakthroughs and solutions.

Pathways forward

So where do we begin? The AI for Good Global Summit is the leading action-oriented, global & inclusive United Nations platform on AI. The Summit is organized by the ITU with XPRIZE Foundation, in partnership with 36 UN sister agencies, ACM and our strategic partner Switzerland.

The goal of the Summit is to identify practical applications of AI to achieve the SDGs and scale those solutions for global impact.

The Summit has delivered on its actionoriented promise, giving rise to the AI Commons and generating numerous AI for Good projects in fields including education, health care and wellbeing, social and economic equality, space research, and smart and safe mobility.

Additionally, the Summit has generated the new ITU Focus Group on “AI for autonomous and assisted driving” that will work towards the establishment of international standards to monitor and assess the performance of the AI “Drivers” steering automated vehicles.

Work continues on projects that were ideated at earlier summits, such as the ITU Focus Group on Artificial Intelligence for Health (FG AI4H) with WHO, working towards the establishment of a framework and associated processes for the performance benchmarking of “AI for Health” algorithms.

All year, always online

Due to recent developments concerning COVID19, the 2020 edition of the AI for Good Global Summit will now be presented as a continuous digital event, featuring weekly programming across multiple formats, platforms and timezones, including keynotes, expert webinars, project pitches, Q&As, performances, demos, interviews, networking and more.

We see this as an opportunity to scale AI for Good and reach even more people, supporting our goal of being the most diverse and inclusive platform around beneficial AI. With a wider and more inclusive outreach, as well as yearlong visibility, our new event format provides partners, speakers and supporters with a much larger, more visible opportunity to connect problem owners with AI problem solvers and work together on actionable projects that shape the future of AI for Good.

The digital edition of the AI for Good Global Summit has already begun with the launch of the AI for Good Webinar series, AI for Good Innovation Factory, weekly AI for Good artists, and more. As the year progresses, the Summit will make its way through the many confirmed AI for Good sessions and speakers from the 2020 Summit programming, and will also tackle more regionspecific content.

The time is now to…

  • Act — Create practical AI for Good solutions aligned with the SDGs through the breakthrough sessions and innovation factory.
  • Scale — Use the Global Initiative on AI and Data Commons as an enabling platform to scale AI for Good.
  • Connect — Ensure that the remaining 50 per cent of the world can fire on all cylinders.
  • Be vigilant — Look out for inherent biases, safety and security risks.
  • Monitor — Use realtime tracking to monitor our progress towards achieving the SDGs.
  • Humanize — Focus on our own intelligence and what we really want for our future.
  • Move the needle — Employ innovative problem-solving methods to bring about radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity.