Why AI Needs the World of Social Impact

A future built by artificial intelligence will only be as inclusive and diverse as the data we feed it.

Why It Matters

Whether you’re “into tech” or not, the field of artificial intelligence needs input from the minds driving social impact — and organizations need the transformations AI could bring. James Stauch and Alina Turner kick off Future of Good’s series on AI in social impact.

Humanity is in the midst of a crucial social and economic transformation: whether we know it or not, we have entered the early stages of the fourth industrial revolution. In much the same way as steam engines, internal combustion, and the internet were among the innovations that marked the first, second, and third industrial revolutions respectively, this fourth revolution is marked by machine learning, the Internet of Things (IoT), autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, blockchain, Big Data, gene editing, implantable devices, and — potentially — quantum computing. These technologies blur the lines between the physical, digital, and biological realms, as well as between human and machine cognition.  

The theme that pervades most of these ever-shifting technologies is the rise of artificial intelligence, or AI.  We are still in the early, infant stages of “weak” or “narrow” AI, where artificial intelligence can only replicate some human actions and intelligences well. We’re still many years, even decades, away from realizing the Holy Grail of Artificial General Intelligence, or AGI — the term given by world-leading AI developer Demis Hassabis to the stage where we can expect AI to embark on rapid, unsupervised learning, and, in the process, master a variety of disciplines, including energy, genomics, cancer, climate change, and macro-economics.

The speed and intensity of these innovations is further amplified by rapidly growing investments in AI development — both globally and within Canada. In 2017, the Canadian federal government announced a $125 million investment into a Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy to retain and attract top academic talent studying AI and deep learning across Canada’s main centers of expertise in Montreal, Toronto-Waterloo, and Edmonton. Among the world’s leading AI scientists are Turing Award recipients Geoffrey Hinton at the University of Toronto and Yoshua Bengio of the Université de Montreal. The University of Alberta now ranks third in the world for artificial intelligence research.

However, Canada is not on the leading edge with respect to AI in social good — at least, not yet. In recent months, we’ve seen the creation of the International Observatory on the Societal Impacts of Artificial Intelligence and Digital Technologies at the University of Laval, the University of Guelph’s Centre for Responsible and Ethical AI, and the University of Toronto’s recently announced Reisman Institute for Technology and Society. But there’s still far more work to be done when it comes to ensuring AI works for social good in Canada. 

Although the consequences of a world dominated by AI are difficult to predict, the rise of AI does not have to be a terrifying prospect. AI can be made to be generative, beautiful, and not only ethical, but rationally compassionate and just, enriching our lives beyond what we can currently imagine. But it will only do so if civil society — including citizens living at the margins and people involved in social good pursuits, from artists and teachers to health professionals and social workers — become much more interested and involved. 

This is not some exotic, far-off prospect. AI is already here in many forms. But our future is still in our hands, at least for the next decade or two. Nick Bostrom, director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, noted in a 2015 TED Talk that “machine intelligence is the last invention that humanity will ever need to make.” 

Getting this invention right, from a social responsibility standpoint, may be the most important existential, public policy, and social goal we can possibly pursue.

Next Up

Stay tuned for the next article in our series on social impact and AI, available next week, or find James Stauch and Alina Turner’s full report on AI and the future of social good, In Search of the Altruithm: AI and the Future of Social Good, here