Let’s talk about artificial intelligence

March 13, 2018

Unless you have been living under a rock, you are bound to have heard either how AI will be the end of all humanity (Stephen Hawking, Steve Wozniak and Elon Musk), or the solution to its biggest challenges. After decades of hype, AI (artificial intelligence) has arrived.

We’ve been trying to learn from those who have used or explored AI across a range of policy issues that the UN works on – from cutting down costs and time in public services and providing humanitarian assistance based on real-time movement of people, to capturing consumption patterns at micro-levels.

Our explorations of AI are in line with UNDP’s new Strategic Plan, which emphasizes that innovation has a central role in fulfilling the organization’s mission and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. By applying leading-edge thinking and advances such as AI, we can help countries make faster progress on the Goals.

So what do we talk about when we talk about AI? What applications of it have inspired us? And what do we mean by ‘responsible’ AI?  

What is AI and how do we apply it in development?

AI, as the Oxford Dictionary defines it, is the theory and development of computer systems that can perform tasks normally requiring human intelligence, such as visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making, and translation and interpretation.

computer screen with lines of code

AI has rapidly developed thanks to better algorithm design, bigger networked computing power and improved ability to capture and store massive amounts of data.

Current forms of AI are considered to be narrow or weak, designed to perform one repetitive task – such as speech recognition on mobile devices, or self-driving cars. Many researchers are seeking to develop what is known as general or strong AI, with behaviours that are as flexible and skillful as humans (such as memory, autonomous learning and responding to emotions).

For us in the development sector, these advances hold the promise of empowering governments, communities and partners to put into place more effective solutions to some of the biggest social ills.

Here are some of the fields that have shown progress and could have a transformative role in development:

Predictive and cognitive analytics/machine learning – the use of data to establish correlations and make predictions:

  • In medicine, AI is already more accurate when it comes to designing personalized treatments or predicting heart attacks. When AI is combined with human diagnosis, the error rate is only 0.5 percent -- compared to 3.5 percent for human doctors. According to WHO, non-communicable diseases cause approximately 89 percent of premature deaths in the European region, thus better diagnostics could help save millions of lives.

A woman holds a baby while a doctor conducts an examination.

In medicine, AI is helping to predict illness and to design personalized treatments. Photo: Jodi Hilton/UNDP

Computer vision – training lenses to understand the world they see:

  • Indian farmers are using AI, which takes into consideration data, like changing weather patterns, production and sowing area, to inform their decisions about when to sow. This increased their yield by 30 percent per hectare, reduced pest-related risks and predicted prices up to three months in advance.
  • Precision farming, through tools like the LettuceBot, can identify and differentiate sprouts from weeds, and isolate weeds for spraying.

More efficient production technologies will de-risk agriculture and provide more stable income to rural populations, while at the same time ensuring responsible use of environmental assets.

Natural language processing and speech recognition – analyzing and translating languages and speech:

A woman harvests crops in a green field.

Farmers can use artificial intelligence to determine when to sow, resulting in better harvests. Photo: Markus Spiske

Towards responsible AI and managing the consequences

Treating AI as a saviour is woefully naive. As with any technology, it holds promises…and risks.

Decisions based on data aren’t necessarily free of bias. For instance, machines learn very quickly to exhibit some of our worst traits, such as being racist or sexist. ProPublica found that a US court programme to assess risks of reoffending was systematically biased against black prisoners – flagging them as almost twice as likely to reoffend as white prisoners. This assessment is based on questions such as parents’ history with correctional services and use of drugs by friends and acquaintances, but does not include any question on race.

Ultimately, machines are as moral as the people who develop them. Will these developers have in mind the consequences of the technology and take into respect the human rights of citizens?

Robots on an assembly line

Industrial robots work the assembly line at a car factory. Photo: Mixabest

For instance, AI and automation will have a greater impact on jobs in smaller cities, which becomes especially important in the Eastern Europe and Central Asia region where 61 percent of cities are facing population decline. Many remedial service and low-paying jobs – like driving taxis or working in fast food restaurants – may disappear. AI could also deepen inequalitieswithin societies by eliminating functions that can make decisions to help people up the social ladder, like paralegals, or payroll managers.    

The only way to actually find out is to engage with the technology and heed the wisdom of Winston Churchill: “The price of greatness is responsibility.”

We will be tracking applications of AI and interesting institutional and under-the-radar solutions with the intention of connecting them with our partner governments to address some of the priority development issues facing our region.

Listen to our webinar on AI with the Future of Life Institute, Web Foundation and PRIMER, here.