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How AI can supercharge solutions to the SDGs

Technology is a critical part of the toolkit to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals within the next 10 years.

Hannah Balllard
July 16, 2020

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been both championed as the solution to all our global problems and the architect of our downfall - in reality, it is neither. AI is a tool that is not inherently good or bad. It takes on the characteristics of the people programming it - and the ideas that influence them.

As with most tools, AI is as useful as you allow it to be. At KCJ, we teach kids that AI, emerging technologies and ethics are important tools that empower them to analyze the world around them.

Introducing kids to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is useful to identify global gaps. These are the opportunities for innovation and change-making.

Lucie Luneau, KCJ’s AI Project Manager, has been running AI for Good workshops for kids across Canada:

“It has been a wonderful experience seeing kids in Montreal being incredibly creative and interested not only about the technique of AI but also how it can play a role in society. They particularly enjoyed learning about AI for good initiatives like how analyzing the sound of the rainforest with AI can help prevent illegal logging activities.”
Kids interacting using hand signs with AI on computer.

Students learn how to train an AI machine to recognize their hand signals during a KCJ workshop.

Today’s kids need to be today’s leaders -and they need an understanding of how the world has been running so they can disrupt it for a better tomorrow.

So how can we use AI to meet the targets of the SDGs?

Big Data is the fuel that AI runs on

The UN’s SDG tagline is a lofty one: Leave No One Behind. Collaborating to create an equitable and just world for 7.8 billion people is no mean feat. But increasing access to Big Data - the large and complex digital footprint that people create by using online services - means we know more about our world than ever before.

The problem with Big Data is the limits of our smaller human brains to process it. This is where AI comes in.

AI uses algorithms to analyze data and predict outcomes. This means AI can answer hard math-based problems, which correlate to SDGs, such as:

Goal 15: Life on Land | Predicting Poachers to Protect Animals

As featured on the People Fixing the World podcast, conservationists have been using AI to analyze poachers’ behaviour. This identifies patterns to predict what poachers will do next, so rangers can remove traps before animals are even hurt.

Goal 5: Gender Equality | An AI chatbot to identify potentially abusive relationships

Developed by our friends at AI for Good, rAInbow is a chatbot that uses quizzes and stories that help users to identify abusive behavior. It also offers tailored advice on the next steps to take to prevent any harm happening. Taking in user data, the bot can also predict if a human needs to intervene.

Goal 12: Responsible Consumption & Production | Data-driven farming to save money and minimize the carbon footprint

Agriculture accounts for nearly 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions, yet more than 10% of the global population is not getting enough to eat. To tackle this mismatch, our funders and friends at Microsoft have developed new solutions that use AI along with low-cost and accessible tech. Using Wi-Fi chips and balloons, they’re helping farmers in lesser-developed countries to maximize their production while limiting the resources they are using.

These are all examples that show how AI can find savings in the way our world works, but what about radical change?

AI can’t guarantee the future - but it can picture it

By taking data from the past and anticipated future trends, AI is able to make reasoned and relatively accurate predictions. But sometimes, Big Data is too big to take in all at once.

Another exciting way that we can use AI to solve the SDGs is with modelling. While a human can brainstorm a few different scenarios, an AI can predict the outcomes of every conceivable model. It can then make unbiased recommendations. Some projects already doing this include:

Goal 13: Climate Action | Visualizing the impact of climate change to inspire action - now

The data-processing power of AI means that it can make many nuanced models of climate change scenarios. While knowledge is power, sometimes pictures tell a stronger story. Sasha Luccioni - Director of Scientific Projects for AI for Humanity, and KCJ advisory board member - is working with Yoshua Bengio and others to raise awareness of what climate change will look like using climate models and AI with the Visualizing Climate Change tool.

Goal 10: Reduced Inequality | Simulating economies to create fairer tax policies

AI’s modelling capabilities extend far beyond the physical world. It can make extensive mathematical calculations to assess efficient tax policies without any political bias or influence.

Goal 3: Better Health & Wellbeing | Testing out infinite chemical compounds to discover a new drug

AI can hypothetically test out hundreds of thousands of antibiotic combinations and predict which are most likely to work. The first algorithmically-discovered antibiotic was found in February 2020.
Already, scientists are using this method to try and find a vaccine for the novel coronavirus.

KCJ is walking the walk

We don’t just believe in talking a big talk about the SDGs - we have incorporated them into our very own operations.

Most importantly, we’re handing the reins over to kids when possible. In January of 2020, we ran the #ScoreAGlobalGoal contest on twitter. Kids across Canada submitted their inventions to help meet the SDG targets. They included plastic-gobbling machines that intelligently avoid fish, a smartwatch that assesses your daily carbon footprint and smart filtration systems that clean the air while nourishing trees.

We need to work together to use all the tools we have access to if we are to meet the Sustainable Development Goals within the next decade. To do that, we must empower the rising generation, who are living through such unprecedented times. Our #kids2030 initiative unites all the work we do around AI, kids and the UN’s Global Goals for sustainable development. Learn more here.