Associate feature: AI for good
When artificial intelligence (AI) makes an appearance in the media, it tends to invoke images of dystopian science fiction. Robots being developed in Silicon Valley bunkers or supercomputers with ominous names predicting our behaviours. These stories have futuristic appeal and an edge of tech menace that capture our imaginations and suit headline writers, but often distort the day-to-day reality of AI.
From smart assistants in our homes to refining search engine results and personalised banking apps, AI is already all around us and shaping both our personal lives and work. And there are many positive examples around the world of how AI is being harnessed to help tackle major social challenges. It was a Canadian AI system that was one of the first to issue a warning about the threat of COVID-19 in December 2019. Increasingly, AI is being used around the globe in public services from healthcare to education, traffic management and resource allocation.
The more fantastical narrative around AI is also often at odds with the real issues we face as a society and take away from the potential of AI as a powerful tool to help us address them. Over the last 20 years, Scotland has seen major social, economic and technical advances across our society.
However, we now enter a new decade amid a global public health crisis, a climate emergency and a tech revolution that is rapidly transforming our personal and professional lives. Even before the pandemic disrupted our lives, levels of poverty and inequality were rising in Scotland and we still face many longstanding and complex social and economic challenges.
These are not simple problems to address and it is clear that when thinking about how our communities, governments, public services, employers and civil society can best respond to the challenges of our time, more of the same simply won’t work.
The need to think differently about the challenges we face and better harness technology for social good, was part of the motivation behind Nesta in Scotland’s AI for Good programme, which earlier this year awarded grant funding to seven innovative projects based in Scotland using AI tools to help tackle social challenges.
Each of these projects demonstrates the enormous social potential of AI systems and tools being developed here in Scotland. We wanted to shine a light on these collaborations and champion the cutting-edge AI innovators operating today. We received more than 70 applications from across the country looking to address a broad range of social issues – a real testament to the strength and depth of Scotland’s AI community.
Of course, AI is not a silver bullet and technology should not be the default answer to our problems. There are many recent examples of how this kind of assumption and approach can go wrong.
Nonetheless, AI and data-driven innovation are powerful tools with massive potential for positive social impact.
In order to support this growing sector and harness AI’s potential as a radical tool for social good, we need to increase public awareness and trust in technology and broaden citizen engagement and participation in its ethical development, design and application.
We need to shift the narrative on AI away from the far-flung and fantastical and towards its positive and practical uses that, if done properly, can help tackle some of the big challenges we face in Scotland today.
The seven AI for Good projects
A team at the University of Edinburgh is developing AI- powered artificial limbs to help amputees regain greater control over their prostheses.
City of Glasgow College’s Citizen Literacy project using AI to train voice recognition software on regional accents to help adult learners improve their literacy.
Tech company Voxsio, working with NHS Forth Valley, is developing an AI-powered chatbot to help young people start a discussion about mental health issues.
Edinburgh-based satellite firm Space Intelligence, working with Scottish Wildlife Trust, is using
AI to interpret large volumes of satellite data and map habitat to help restore and protect Scotland’s natural environment.
Bishopbriggs tech firm Red Star AI is working to improve the diagnosis and treatment of diabetes patients by helping doctors to predict risks using AI analysis of clinical notes and case histories.
Heriot-Watt University’s Interaction Lab is using AI to address gender stereotypes in smart assistants such as Alexa and Siri, which are predominantly modelled as young, submissive women.
Blackwood Homes and Care, a specialist housing and care provider, is applying AI to smart energy meter data in its homes to monitor for changes in patterns of behaviour to help protect residents.
Adam Lang is the head of Nesta in Scotland.
The piece was sponsored by Nesta.
Follow them on Twitter: @Nesta_Scotland