Rhodri Davies: What are the speedbumps that stop charities from using AI?

Civil society must play a role in developing artificial intelligence, says the Charities Aid Foundation's head of policy. So what are the challenges to overcome?

Rhodri Davies
Rhodri Davies

We’re only just beginning to explore the opportunities for charities to harness artificial intelligence. Most of us have seen at least some of the flashy, headline-grabbing news around AI and, on first inspection, you might question why this has anything to do with civil society at all. And those headlines aren’t always positive. How do self-driving cars bumping into pedestrians or Microsoft’s chatbot Tay tweeting "Hitler was right" have anything to do with charities?

Well, despite some of the growing pains with AI that I just referenced, the potential for AI to do good is truly immense. For example, the Children’s Society has since 2016 been using Microsoft’s AI-powered live translation tools when speaking with young refugees and migrants in London. This technology enables you to hold a direct conversation using a mobile phone or VOIP software (such as Skype) and have your speech translated into another language in real time. What an incredibly useful tool for the society, which deals with vulnerable people whose messages can sometimes get lost in translation.

With London Tech Week beginning on 11 June, it’s a good time to assess where charities are with regard to AI. Because if charities are in a strong, forward-thinking position, they’ll deliver their missions much more effectively. However, there are going to be major challenges when it comes to realising this potential. Below I list the four key stumbling blocks that charities will have to overcome in order to benefit from AI in the future.

Skills

It’s unlikely that many (if any) charities will have skills in-house when it comes to developing AI systems. The Charity Digital Skills Report 2018 said that 73 per cent of organisations reported having low to very low skills in AI. Widespread use of the technology is still at a relatively early stage, so we probably shouldn’t expect charities to have invested resources yet! Another recent report, this one from the Chinese tech giant Tencent, said that the huge interest in AI was outstripping the supply of people with the required skills. There are currently 300,000 AI technicians worldwide, but we’ll need millions in the coming years.

Risk appetite

New technologies are seen as high risk (often quite rightly). Given that most charities and civil society organisations operate with very limited resources, it’s going to be extremely difficult for them to justify making speculative gambles of the kind required to be genuine early adopters of a technology such as AI. The challenge, then, is how to mitigate or reduce this risk. One possible solution lies in developing stronger partnerships between civil society and the tech sector, so that the fiscal responsibility for shouldering innovation risk can be spread more evenly.

Leadership

Leadership – both at a senior management and a trustee level – is absolutely vital when it comes to charities engaging with new technology. According to The Charity Digital Skills Report 2018, 77 per cent of respondents said that they would like to see their leadership teams develop "a clear understanding of what digital could achieve", and 63 per cent said they would like to see them develop "understanding of trends and how they affect your charity".

There might be cultural issues (at least in the short term) because those in leadership roles are likely to be older and thus less conversant with technology than many "digitally native" younger professionals. Clearly, it’s important to look to the future. That means supporting wider awareness and education so that the potential leaders of tomorrow, for whom engagement with technology issues might come more naturally, have the skills and understanding they need to make the sector as a whole more technologically adept.

Investment

Another challenge that charities will face is finding the resources to invest in new technology. Even if an organisation’s leadership is on board and they’re comfortable with the risks, non-profits don’t have an endless pot of money to play with. There is a role here for grant-makers such as trusts and foundations to provide financial support to organisations with a compelling case for investing in new technology.

Companies could also play a key role: many organisations across a wide range of industry sectors are experimenting with technologies such as AI. There’s a case for saying that they could extend this into some of their CSR or corporate philanthropy activity by helping charities to develop applications of the same technology for social and environmental use cases.

Charities clearly have a lot of variables to ponder if they’re to get on board with new technologies such as AI. At times it will be expensive, requiring leaps of faith, and a shift in leadership attitudes will need to be forthcoming. But these barriers are not a reason to give up, considering the size of the prize on offer. With the right guidance and support, charities can harness artificial intelligence to further their missiona, improve countless lives as a result and put civil society at the forefront of innovation.

Rhodri Davies is head of policy at the Charities Aid Foundation

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