Google Wants to Help You Use AI for Social Good

Social entrepreneurs can take advantage of free tips and tools to accelerate business with artificial intelligence

Google is launching a new Startups Accelerator focused on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which include eliminating poverty, delivering quality education, and improving healthcare around the world. The announcement reads: “Geared toward social impact startups working to create a healthier and more sustainable future, the accelerator provides access to training, products and technical support. Startup founders will work with Google engineers and receive mentoring from over 20 teams at Google, as well as outside experts and local mentors.”

The project is part of Google’s strategy to help drive sustainable solutions for humanity using technology, particularly artificial intelligence. Google is fraught with controversy on many fronts, including demands from employees for more action on climate. And there are fears surrounding AI, for example that an application could bring unintended consequences. But Google, and others, offer a growing collection of tools and opportunities social entrepreneurs might want to think about (carefully) taking advantage of.

In the Fall of 2018, Google launched an AI Impact Challenge, awarding the 20 winning applicants with funds, coaching and inclusion in a prior accelerator program. The idea was to help social entrepreneurs (and others with similar goals) find ways to use AI to make progress on the Sustainable Development Goals. Google then put together a report, “ Accelerating Social Good with Artificial Intelligence,” based on the information gleaned from evaluating applicants. The report offers valuable insights and lessons the company learned during the process.

Google has also done research on using AI as a tool to accelerate the transition from a linear economy (where we take resources from the environment, make them into products, and then throw those products away into landfill) to a circular economy (where we reuse, repurpose, and recycle products, designing them to last longer, incorporate renewable materials and be recyclable, where possible). Google and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation recently published a report, “ Artificial Intelligence and The Circular Economy,” highlighting the potential of AI to accelerate a circular economy transition, with a deep dive into two sectors: food and consumer electronics. Separately, Google Cloud and SAP recently hosted a contest for social entrepreneurs on circular economy solutions.

The two reports illustrate ways in which artificial intelligence can be deployed for social good. For example, a company in the Netherlands called Skilllab B.V. is using AI to help recommend career paths to refugees, and US-based Nexleaf Analytics is working on helping ensure vaccinations are delivered safely to the children who need them. Another company, Rainforest Connection, uses AI to dissect sound patterns to identify illegal logging. The circular economy report cites four companies working with AI algorithms to create plant-based foods that replace meat, fish, dairy and egg products.

Here are some tips and tools for business leaders looking into AI for social good.

1. First of all, AI may not be the answer to every problem. According to Google, the first step is to evaluate whether there are more effective, cheaper ways to achieve desired outcomes, and whether data is readily available. Machine learning won’t be helpful without good data. “For AI to prove solutions… it not only requires the four steps of data collection, data engineering, algorithm development, and algorithm refinement, it also requires a clear understanding of the actual problem and what we specifically need AI to solve,” the circular economy report reads. “Put simply, if humans cannot establish the relevant inputs and outputs clearly, a machine cannot solve a problem.”

2. AI can be useful in certain cases, for example to predict future events, to personalize a user experience, to categorize, and to detect infrequent events that change over time. For more information on when to use AI, see Google’s People + AI Guidebook, one of many tools Google offers online.

3. OpenAI is another resource with helpful tools set up by a team of people in San Francisco, unrelated to Google. OpenAI’s mission, according to its website, “is to ensure that artificial general intelligence benefits all of humanity.” That’s important as developers try to ensure that AI solutions are ethical and avoid dangerous consequences. OpenAI offers learnings, case studies and research. Take a look.

4. Independently of its accelerator programs, Google offers the opportunity to learn from its machine learning experts. In its AI Education web pages, Google offers courses, content, and the AI for Social Good Guide. Be ready to spend hours here. For basic training, start with Google’s “ Teachable Machine” tool that’s accessible to everyone.

5. AI is becoming more accessible. TensorFlow is an open source software platform that makes machine learning and deep learning tools available to everyone. And on GitHub, you can collaborate on projects with other developers.

6. AI can help with product design for a circular economy, identifying materials that work well and rapidly testing products. Google’s report cites the Accelerated Metallurgy project, run by the European Space Agency together with a group of leading manufacturers, universities, and designers. “AI technology was used to create a rapid and systematic way to produce and test new metal alloys,” says the report. “Not only did it produce completely new materials, it also discovered them faster than ever before.”

7. In the transition to a circular economy, there are cases where products might be sold as a service instead of by the unit. For example, a lightbulb producer could provide a certain amount and type of lighting, rather than selling lightbulbs. In a case such as this, AI can be used to help manage the demand for lighting and predict maintenance needs. The circular economy report cites the company Stuffstr, which buys used products from consumers and sells them second hand. “Stuffstr is using AI to support price setting, forecast demand, and to create trading platforms for secondary resources, components and products,” says the report. “An AI algorithm helps Stuffstr to set competitive prices for the seller, while offering Stuffstr a good margin on the second hand market.” This is an example of AI helping to change business models in order to transition to a circular economy.

8. AI can also help build infrastructure for the circular economy. For example, AI is being deployed for visual recognition to create separate recycling streams. The report cites the company ZenRobotics, which uses cameras and sensors “whose imagery input allows AI to control intelligent waste sorting robots. These robots can reach an accuracy level of 98% in sorting myriad material streams, from plastic packaging to construction waste,” according to the circular economy report.

9. There’s more. Look through Google’s toolbox for useful ideas. One tool identifies the potential to put solar panels on your rooftop. If you input your address, it will tell you instantly how much you could save on your energy bill. Other tools provide water and power plant maps and databases which could be useful for companies looking to relocate. Another tool helps you decarbonize your electricity. And Google has developed “ Global Forest Watch” and “ Global Fishing Watch,” satellite technology tools that can help companies avoid risk in the supply chain.

10. You can direct your employees to a Google tool called “ Your Plan, Your Planet.” This gives tips for individuals to help save water, consume less stuff, waste less food and save energy. Kate Brandt, head of sustainability at Google, hopes to expand Google’s offerings to specifically support entrepreneurs. “Small business is a personal interest of mine,” she says. She’s working on it.

11. Look for a Google.org impact challenge in your state. Google.org is the philanthropy foundation of the company, and it offers an array of challenges to help social entrepreneurs make their communities a better place. Look here for funding and other support for your local impact project.

Google is ready to support your social enterprise with all its technological might. But it isn’t waiting around for you. X, the company’s “ moonshot factory,” might get there first, as it seeks to invent new technologies for the world’s toughest problems. Stay tuned.

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