Artificial Intelligence (AI) is already all around us, yet this technological revolution has been largely neglected by the philanthropy sector so far. However, since the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many people into their homes, AI is growing faster than ever before – this will have a deep impact on philanthropy.
As the sector navigates AI’s new role, it should address four essential issues in particular: protecting privacy and ensuring ethical use, increasing impact for good, scrutinising the influence of elites, and understanding evolving donor behaviour. It is urgent to raise awareness within the philanthropy sector not only on how to harness the power of AI for impact but more fundamentally on how AI is shaping tomorrow’s society.
Beyond a massive and immediate philanthropic response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the current health crisis has raised fundamental questions around the sector’s role and legitimacy as a new global philanthropic landscape emerges. How this environment will evolve is still unclear, but the impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI) will undoubtedly be crucial, for better or worse, and requires urgent attention from philanthropy actors.
AI is already here and all around us
AI was one of the most debated topics pre-COVID-19, and the current crisis has only reinforced its potential grasp on our lives. AI pioneer Marvin Minsky defined AI as ‘the science of making machines do things that would require intelligence if done by men’. So visual perception, speech recognition, and decision making or any scenario when machines perform human-like cognitive functions constitutes AI.
AI is all around us, it has become part a of our daily lives – our smartphone, for example, increasingly serves as our digital extension. We engage with AI on a daily basis when we use Google, Facebook, or WeChat. AI’s ‘mind-blowing skills’ are already countless, including its ability to read, translate, recognise faces, speak, or even to translate your brainwaves into sentences.
AI is booming while humans are confined at home and social distancing measures entail a more widespread use of robots. COVID-19 is accelerating the emergence of AI and data driven systems and surveillance tech in places like China, Singapore, and South-Korea to fight the pandemic. It is fuelling AI enabled surveillance systems in a way we have never seen before. Flying drones to make sure people are wearing masks, body heat cameras, and apps to track location and health conditions of citizens have or are likely to become standard practice in many places. The spectre of ‘totalitarian surveillance’ as the new normal and for the sake of public health is looming. Simultaneously however, pioneering tech also offers the very means to mitigate such risks. Blockchain, for instance, offers unique capabilities to decentralise and secure databases. Using blockchain could prevent AI from relying on centralised databases, thereby reducing the potential for malicious massive surveillance and the threat to privacy of a ‘digital panopticon’.
AI could enhance the intelligence of the heart by sharpening the eye. It could also do the exact opposite if we are not ready to tame the beast and set appropriate boundaries.
This manifestation both of AI’s power and its fearful face add to the growing concern about the potential dangers and perverse effect of implementing a technology of this magnitude and power without proper ethical frameworks, principles, and oversight. Issues such as bias in the algorithmic processing; the impact of automatisation on the future of work; the use of AI to influence political processes or to gain political control or its use in warfare to name a few, have moved high on the national and international agendas.
AI has been neglected by the philanthropy sector so far
Today the philanthropic sector does not appear to be sufficiently aware of the issues at stake. Philanthropy has been largely absent from the great AI debates so far, but the sector has started paying increasing attention to AI in particular in terms of key ethical challenges and the potentially beneficial use of this new field of technologies.
COVID-19 is accelerating the emergence of AI and data driven systems and surveillance tech in places like China, Singapore, and South-Korea to fight the pandemic.
Resource centres like the UK’s Charities Aid Foundation are raising awareness and taking a stronger voice in shaping tomorrow’s AI agenda. The sector is launching new initiatives such as the AI enabled COVID-19 Open Research Dataset by a group of US philanthropists or Google’s $25 million call for ideas focusing on ‘AI for social good’. Research on AI itself already benefits from growing private donations including £150 million, the largest ever single donation to a UK university, to establish a new Institute for Ethics in AI at the University of Oxford. AI is used well beyond the Western world, with innovative applications for instance in Africa to help farmers and tackle food security, as well as in China, a leading country in this technology ‘without borders’.
Why should the philanthropy sector urgently care about AI?
As exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, the philanthropy sector should delve into AI for at least the following fundamental reasons:
- AI’s game-changing influence on society: AI pervades society and affects the people and communities served by the philanthropic sector. How grant-makers both use and support organisations working in a world in which digital technology pervades will be crucial to our civil society and democracy, especially with the mounting Covid-induced apprehension around the digital surveillance that may threaten privacy. The real question for philanthropy, as expert Lucy Bernholz warns, is not how nonprofits and foundations will use AI in their missions, but ‘how is AI being used within the domains within which they work and how they must respond’. If they fail to position themselves, particularly regarding the ethical dimensions of AI, and fail to adapt, they run the risk of becoming irrelevant.
- AI for bigger and better impact: The present urgency and growing focus on effective philanthropy stresses the importance of achieving impact. COVID-19 adds even more pressure to demonstrate impact as harsher financial constraints will result from the economic downturn. AI can match a rising need for data-driven decision-making and a widespread desire to harness the power of data analytic tools to better assess outcomes. By relying on algorithms, AI also offers a technical promise to advance and scale up positive impact in itself. Countless AI-based applications already enable the sector to coach job-seekers, to provide students with micro-scholarships, to track endangered animals, fight sex-trafficking, or reconnect refugee families. A key safeguard is that the human factor should never be side-lined in AI’s use. Only through the combination of man and machine – a warm heart with a sharp eye – could impact be safely enhanced.
- AI and the influence of elites: Ethically aligned AI holds the promise of removing or reducing personal prejudices and biases, such as in human resources management, although experts point to ‘a substantial gap between the promise and reality’. Likewise, it is still unsure whether AI could enable more transparency and accountability in philanthropy. What is certain is that philanthropy is at a turning point and its democratization and ability to address growing inequality are vital. It is crucial to find new ways not only to donate money, but also to empower beneficiaries. With wealth increasingly concentrated by fewer corporations and individuals, a tremendous responsibility over philanthropy rests in the hand of few elites. Their influence on the philanthropic sector is likely to grow as these elites are also connected to the tech behemoth companies that promote AI.
- AI and donor behaviour: Finally, one should consider behavioural trends. Willingly or not, humans increasingly rely on AI to make daily routine decisions based on recommendations. As these become ubiquitous, humans are becoming accustomed to receiving tailored content based on preferences linked to their profile. It would seem odd and passé if philanthropy remained an area where such possibilities were not used. This is all the more relevant as technology enables new (micro) fundraising and customized crowd-funding possibilities, such as ‘precision philanthropy’ that seeks to predict real-time donor’s affinity and inclination to give.
Rethinking the future of philanthropy in the digital age
Philanthropic organisations are pressed towards taking a position and reinventing themselves for the digital age. Not only in terms of how to harness the power of AI for impact but more fundamentally on how AI is affecting society and social justice and how perverse effects can be mitigated in a deeply impacted, post-COVID-19 world.
AI offers philanthropy powerful opportunities to deliver social goods in new and efficient ways. It could contribute to more effective and perhaps more democratic philanthropy. AI could enhance the intelligence of the heart by sharpening the eye. It could also do the exact opposite if we are not ready to tame the beast and set appropriate boundaries.
Dr Joost Mönks is an International expert in education and AI and a lecturer on emerging philanthropy at the University of Geneva in Switzerland.