Zoe Amar: Why AI is a big opportunity for charities

The government predicts that artificial intelligence could add more than £650bn to the economy, so the sector needs to frame its response and get involved, writes our columnist

Zoe Amar
Zoe Amar

Since the start of this year you probably haven’t been able to pick up a newspaper or turn on the radio without hearing a story about AI. Also known as artificial intelligence, AI is another name for computer systems that can undertake tasks that require intelligence. Whether it’s self-driving cars, Google Deep Mind’s project with the Royal Free or PWC’s research that says robots could take up to 30 per cent of UK jobs thanks to automation, AI has generated plenty of column inches as well as discussion about the principles behind these emerging technologies.

Yet the charity sector’s voice has largely been absent. Why is that? AI offers hugely exciting possibilities (such as robots that can detect Alzheimer’s or depression), but it also triggers a range of worrying ethical issues, such as AI programmes that pick up deeply embedded racist and sexist prejudices). Shouldn’t we be challenging any tech developments that go against our sector’s values? Many tech pundits agree that AI is likely to change society forever, with Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates urging caution. Our sector’s raison d’être is to make the world a better, fairer place, and we must be part of the AI debate if we want to remain relevant.

Charities’ silence on this issue may be explained by a skills gap. Our Charity Digital Skills Report of earlier this year said that 68 per cent of charities had low to very low skills in AI. We need to move quickly if we want to change this. The government is already investing in AI, predicting that it could add £654bn to the UK economy.

Last week we, along with the recruitment consultancy Charity People, convened a group of sector leaders to discuss how charities could use AI. One of the speakers, Rhodri Davies, head of the Giving Thought programme at the Charities Aid Foundation, said he believed that AI offered huge potential for the sector, from chatbots and philanthropy advice to new ways of meeting existing social need. On that note, Adrienne Skelton from Arthritis Research UK presented about her organisation’s project with IBM Watson, which provides those with the condition a virtual personal assistant that offers information and advice. The project came about because the charity realised that to support the 10 million people affected with arthritis across the UK it had to provide personalised information around the clock to people who live with the condition.

Davies pointed out that there was a lack of tech skills in the charity sector, so the onus should be on collaboration. Organisations will also need to think creatively about how to use AI to achieve their vision and mission. For instance, Kirsten Naudé, head of investment and partnerships at the Children’s Society, told me how her charity "is sponsoring 10 places on a number of the upcoming Bethnal Green Ventures (Europe’s leading tech accelerator) programmes, one of which is called Ally, a chatbot based currently in Facebook Messenger. It aims to provide young individuals in precarious housing situations with the information and tools they need to escape the cycle of homelessness."

AI offers exciting possibilities for charities, from helping more beneficiaries to mapping their impact and offering donors a better experience. Charities need to decide how they’re going to participate in this brave new world. And above all, we must get a seat at the table to shape the ethical framework for AI.

Zoe Amar is the founder of the digital and marketing consultancy Zoe Amar Communications

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