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Artificial Intelligence for all

The anniversary of the signing of the first International Telegraph Convention and the creation of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) was celebrated on May 17 as World Telecommunication and Information Society Day (WTISD). The theme this year is “Enabling the positive use of Artificial Intelligence for all”. One of the objectives is to accelerate the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in furthering United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Ever since the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were set by the United Nations General Assembly in September 2015, governments, private enterprises and communities all over the globe have been engaged in making these SDGs as part of their mission. Telecommunications and associated technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) have a role to play in attaining a subset of these goals and efforts are underway by all stakeholders concerned to appropriately integrate such technologies in to their agenda. We illustrate through sample use cases to highlight the role of AI in telecom and related technologies.

SDG 1

No poverty: Poverty and agriculture are interlinked as 65 per cent of poor working adults making a living through agriculture, according to the World Bank. Hence any effort in improving agricultural yields and markets will go a long way in reducing poverty. Scientists at the Carnegie Mellon University in the US recently launched FarmView (https://www.cmu.edu/work-that-matters/farmview/), a project that combines AI with robotics to improve the agricultural yield of certain staple crops that is very much valuable in developing countries. Researchers at Stanford University have been working on use of AI to integrate night and daylight satellite images with household survey data to predict the distribution of poverty throughout select countries in Africa to enable policy makers to devise poverty alleviation programs accordingly. 

SDG 3

Good health and well being: According to the World Health Organization, over 130 million people are in constant need of humanitarian assistance due to natural disasters, disease outbreaks, and conflicts, among other factors. Humanitarian Heal-th Crisis (HHR) requires analysing massive amount of data during epidemic or natural disaster, assisting decision making of different stakeholders involved in rehabilitation effect, predicting such future instances and minimizing their effect. One of the most well-known platforms for outbreak detection is Health Map (healthmap.org) that uses AI for Disaster Response (AIDR), developed by a team of researchers, epidemiologists and software engineers to provide disease outbreak monitoring and real-time surveillance of emerging public health threats.

SDG 4

Quality in Education: While Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) pioneered by edX and Coursera changed the mode of learning away from classrooms, disruptive changes are in the offing in personalisation of learning experience. Cognitive solutions that understand, reason and learn help educators gain insights into learning styles, preferences and aptitude of every student are being developed. Built for teachers, by teachers, IBM Watson Enlight planning tool support teachers with curated, personalised learning content and activities to align with each student’s needs. The emphasis on personalised education is also one of the central claims behind AltSchool (https://www.altschool.com/) with the central theme being “Technology can superpower teachers and students”.

SDG 8

Decent work and economic growth: Barack Obama claimed before the US election last year: ‘The next wave of economic dislocations won’t come from overseas. It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good middle-class jobs obsolete”. The ‘end of work—future of work’ discourses that became popular in the 1970s due to industrial automation and again in the 1990s due to Internet technologies are already beginning to reappear in the decade that leads into 2020. Guy Rider, Director General of the International Labour Organization (ILO) succinctly remarked that “the digital economy must be a sustainable one and it must be built on decent work which gives humans dignity. It is work which is productive and delivers a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for men and women and their families”. It is imperative to reorganise, educate and re-skill labour around “workless” and “workerless” societies where human labour is no longer a necessary factor of production, thanks to AI.  

Needless to say, not all is rosy with AI. A number of AI researchers recently published a report titled “The Malicious Use of Artificial Intelligence: Forecasting, Prevention, and Mitigation” indicate potential security threats from malicious uses of AI technologies, across the digital, physical, and political domains.

The challenge before us is to harvest the positive uses of AI and mitigate the malicious effect for better life for all.

(The writer is a professor at IIIT-Bangalore)