How AI Will Benefit the Social Sector

The talk of “moral machines” and panic over AI is becoming the reefer madness of the social sector

Why It Matters

According to James Stauch, director of the Institute for Community Prosperity, the benefits of artificial intelligence for the social sector are getting lost in the larger discussion.

In the coming decades, many predict that we will reach the point of technological singularity, a moment where artificial intelligence will be sufficiently self-aware that machines will themselves create exponential leaps in technological growth, profoundly changing — or in darker forecasts, replacing —  human civilization. 

For those concerned with the health, resilience, and sustainability of the community sphere, the implications of this singularity, at first glance, seem terrifying.   

On closer inspection, the opposite may be true.

Since the end of the Second World War, more and more Canadians, as a percentage of the workforce, have been employed in the social economy, including voluntary associations, charities, quasi-public sector nonprofits (universities and hospitals), and co-ops.

From many perspectives, this seems like dark days for community organizations: charitable donations are dropping, boards are shrinking, and talent is hard to retain.  

Yet, we’re seeing large upticks in earned revenue, crowdfunding, social finance, and millennial and Generation Z civic engagement.  

Annie Spratt photo on Future of Good

We are also seeing more and more businesses skew social (including large portions of the journalism industry, whose future is nonprofit), with greater sophistication and professionalization of corporate social responsibility and the rise of B Corps and social enterprise.

This social economy growth trend will intensify, as social theorist Jeremy Rifkin has argued, with the onset of AI and robotics, as so much of this realm is in high-touch helping and advocacy professions, or otherwise dealing with human complexity.

As robotics pioneer Sebastian Thrun has remarked, “Nobody phrases it this way, but I think that artificial intelligence is almost a humanities discipline. It’s really an attempt to understand human intelligence and human cognition.”

We shouldn’t be either fearful or blithe when it comes to artificial intelligence.

AI will reflect and either amplify, or consciously correct for (or complement), human qualities. Success lies in collaborating with computers to help direct their growth and learning.

One New Yorker article argues — persuasively — that having all these uber-intelligent machines will ironically make us more human. This goes beyond making machines algorithmically ethical, like the researchers at MIT’s Moral Machine project are working on.

Like responsible parents, we need to raise AI to emulate our desirable human qualities: creativity, empathy, and emotional intelligence. They won’t cry, but they’ll know why we cry, to paraphrase Schwarzenegger’s T-800 character in Terminator II.   

With the right design approach, our machines can be rationally compassionate, and the good news for the social sector is that robots will help us to spend more time on questions of complexity and systems change.