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Charities should be ethical guardians during development of AI

Thursday 12 October 2017

Charities can harness the power of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to solve social and environmental problems argues one of Britain's largest charities in a new report.

The Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) has today published a response to the recent call for evidence from the House of Lords Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence.  It outlines the ways in which charities are already successfully using AI as well as some of the potential challenges and opportunities the technology will bring in the future.

The use of AI in many different areas of modern life poses a number of known risks which charities are in a prime position to help avoid or minimise.  It is now widely recognised that the algorithms driving AI can lead to existing social biases being strengthened and vulnerable individuals and groups becoming side-lined.  Charities often exist to represent these marginalised elements in our society so they have a vital role to play in overcoming these challenges.

The mass automation of the workplace - including the replacement of knowledge based jobs - will have a significant impact on our society if it leads to the majority of people no longer having work.  Charities and voluntary organisations can play a vital role in helping people adapt to this change.

Based on research by its in-house think tank Giving Thought, CAF has identified four key ways in which AI could affect the work of charities:

  1. AI will create new social problems which charities will have to address.
  2. Charities will use AI to develop new ways of tackling existing social and environmental problems.
  3. AI will offer new ways for existing charitable organisations to work more efficiently and effectively.
  4. The development of AI will create new ways of achieving social good which could replace traditional charities.

CAF argues that government, charities and the private sector should work together to ensure:

  1. Charities receive support to develop the skills and resources needed to realise the potential of AI when it comes to addressing social and environmental issues.
  2. Systems are put in place to provide oversight of the use of AI and algorithmic processes to ensure unintended consequences are minimised and charities play a central role in this as "ethical guardians".
  3. Charities have a voice in the debate about how to adapt to the changing nature of the workplace in the face of mass automation.

Innovative organisations across the charity sector are already using AI to tackle issues more effectively.  AI social media analysis is used for suicide prevention, chatbots offer medical advice and AI analysis of visual data from aerial drones helps in the fight against poaching.  There is also the possibility that AI could be used to transform the ways in which we are able to support good causes by making giving more transparent and efficient or by creating entirely new types of organisations for doing good.

Rhodri Davies, leader of CAF's Giving Thought think tank, said:

"Artificial intelligence is already having a huge impact on all of us - even if we don't realise it - and it seems set to transform all aspects of our lives in years to come.

"Charities must get to grips with AI, not only because they could benefit enormously in terms of their own work, but because they could play a vital role in minimising some of the risks associated with this evolving technology.

"Government and the private sector must work with charities to ensure they get the benefit of their expertise in tackling social and environmental issues caused by the development of AI applications.  Now is the time to get involved as the pace of development of this technology is accelerating and there is a risk that charities and those they seek to help will get left behind."

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