Unleashing the potential of AI for social good

22 Oct 2019

Guest blog by Shwetal Shah

We live in a time when technology presents people with opportunities, and also with great fears. As machines become increasingly present in the workplace, some people worry that they may be replaced in their roles.

When we use AI for social good, we will be able to discover ways of protecting our planet, people, and animals in the long term. As we continue growing as a population, no solution comes closer to managing the needs and wants of billions of people than AI.

Below are some examples of AI being used to tackle some of the biggest global issues which excites me the most.

Water Management 

Water shortage is a problem faced in many parts of the world (India, Bangladesh andCalifornia, to name a few). California was expecting the worst drought in 500 years, so the district turned to DataKind. DataKind collected flow data from the microzone level, as well as data on water usage, weather, and the population, to develop an AI forecasting model – creating more efficiency and saving millions.

Climate change

In the wake of Hurricane Maria, the AI for Earth program awarded a grant to Maria Uriarte, an ecology professor from Columbia University. Uriarte’s team set out to Puerto Rico to study the impact of the hurricane on the El Yunque National Forest.

By using AI and data science, they can analyze how trees have been disrupted in the forest. Without AI, such a study wouldn’t be possible. If we can develop a better understanding of how our forests change in the wake of hurricanes, we can look for measures to combat climate change.

Renewable Energy

As a carbon-free form of electricity, wind power is on the rise. It’s getting cheaper, and it is gradually being embraced. The one sticking point, however, is the unpredictable nature of the wind. 

Google has sought to find the answer to this problem by teaming up with DeepMind. The DeepMind AI system can use  data to accurately predict the output up to 36 hours before the wind power needs to be generated. This system can help the world optimize its electricity use on large power grids, effectively conserving energy in the long run.

Why do you think it’s so important to create more opportunities to innovate for young people with a range of backgrounds?

My personal experience, one shared by many other women in the industry, of being told while growing up that tech was too hard, or not being able to see anyone like me in the industry, shouldn’t be a common occurrence for young people. We need to close the STEM participation gap.

We need half the world’s population that is a consumer to become a creator as well. To bring different ideas to the table, to feel confident in their knowledge and skills and to contribute to society, so that we can live in a society with diverse thoughts and perceptions where we can challenge our own beliefs, benefitting from the richness of new opportunities and creations.

“We also aspire to become a millionaire (not in the traditional sense) organization- but  a person or group of people, that can touch, teach or influence a million people using the power of tech.”

Director of the Aspen Institute

As someone who has successfully gone through the challenge prize process before, what advice would you have for LEP applicants? 

Going through the challenge prize was an amazing experience for a number of reasons and below I would like to enlist a few key action points that the participants should focus on:

  • You get access to other people to collaborate with and learn from – make the most of this opportunity and reach out to other participants. When I was on the programme I reached out to three other organizations who worked in a similar space to get their advice, feedback and a potential to work together.
  • Make sure you focus on the impact as well, having a great idea is important and will get you through the first stage but be sure to also work out the short/ medium/long term impact your solution will have towards society.
  • Don’t forget to be imaginative with your ideas and have fun ,which is key to enjoying what you do and it not feeling like a task.

Who are you most inspired by? 

I was invited to watch ‘Hidden Figures’ at the US Embassy in London about 2 years ago, I met Mahvash Siddiqui, the Embassy’s science diplomat, I have been very inspired since then by the work she does in her STEM outreach and also attended a hackathon she organized at London Zoo. 

Seeing a woman from an ethnic minority background lead America’s diplomatic policies and outreach on STEM and seeing her journey has given me a new role model to look up  to and be inspired by.

Shwetal currently works at MediaCom connecting tech startups to large Fortune 500 clients. In her spare time she makes documentaries and organizes public science lectures, she is a UN Empower Women Champion, Forbes 30 under 30, Financial Times top 100 BME in tech and was recently awarded a Tech Nation Exceptional Talent Visa in Digital Tech.