So here’s my backstory: I am terrified of artificial intelligence, or, as people in “the biz” call it, AI. I’ve watched every episode of Black Mirror, I know what happens when you design robots to think like humans! They turn on us!!! I was enthralled and terrified by the movie Her, in which Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with an AI bot voiced by Scarlett Johansson. I point blank refuse to own an Amazon Echo, or “Alexa”, because I’m afraid she’ll listen to all my conversations. Who knows why — most of my conversations are about how I want to adopt a dog, and what shall I have for dinner tonight, and Love Island, but that’s beside the point. I am a tried and true tech-phobe. I have, for years, moaned and ranted about tech scientists designing cars that can drive themselves to please the 1%, when there’s poverty, hunger and war plaguing the world to this day. However, last week, through a bizarre turn of events, I was invited to the launch event of an AI company named AI For Good. I went along, trepidatious and full of questions.
The event was held at the AI For Good offices in Farringdon, in a slick but cool space which is home to a big, fluffy dog (immediate brownie points from me). I have never, ever had to network in my life, and there I was, a graduate of four weeks, in a new jacket I couldn’t afford, standing at the bar about to pay for a glass of wine which I didn’t realise was free, chatting to a businessman about his startup, wondering how on earth I ended up here. I started to internally panic, wanting nothing but to pet the office dog and not have to speak to anyone at all, when the talk began. I slunk in, sat down, and listened hard.
AI For Good was founded two years ago by a woman named Kriti Sharma. Only now in her early thirties, Sharma built her first robot at fifteen in India, which, much to the amusement of the audience, she told us had one function: “to spit out a Snickers bar at 3pm every day.” Since the Snickers days, Sharma has gone on to work for Sage, was featured in Forbes’ 30 under 30 for technology, and even worked for the Obama Foundation as an AI engineer. Two years ago she decided to set up AI For Good, which aims at creating AI solutions for humanitarian issues. Essentially, she states, she was sick of using her skills to “make people click on ads and spend money on things they don’t need.” So far, so good, I thought. But where’s the catch? Then Sharma blew me away — she explained AI For Good’s first creation, an app named rAInbow, launched in South Africa only (so far). The idea is simple: the app is a sort of bot-helpline for victims of domestic violence. It works like texting a friend, and helps you identify if you’re in an abusive relationship, and if so, how you can get help in your area. It’s programmed to simulate empathy, asking the right questions, providing women with someone to talk to. Which, seeing as one in three women in South Africa have experienced domestic violence, seems to be a necessary step right now. While Sharma was speaking, I was thinking to myself, but why does it need to be a bot? Surely there are helplines, charities, real human beings who can help these women? But indeed, most domestic violence helplines in South Africa are open 9-5, Monday to Friday, when of course, abuse happens mostly in the evening and at the weekend. So many women have nobody to turn to, and are full of shame for the abuse they receive. It appears rAInbow has turned into a lifeline for some women. I was more and more intrigued by the minute.
Sharma then passed the mic to a few different speakers. A young woman working on her PhD thesis in dementia, using AI to find commonalities among younger people who might have dementia in the future. A data scientist who built a system for a food bank in Huddersfield, which alerts a support worker when a specific individual has had ten or more referrals to the food bank, enabling them to reach out to that person who is in crisis and provide further support. An environmentalist who was programming drones to measure the consistency of ice across Antarctica, to better understand the effects of climate change. I won’t lie, most of the jargon went over my head. I don’t think I understand at all what these people actually did to create these programmes, or how they work, but what I did learn was this: the technology used by giants like Google and Amazon to make us buy stuff? It can do good in the right hands. I entered the world of AI totally clueless and rather sceptical, and left full of hope, daring to let myself feel good about this technology. Instead of fear-mongering the dangers of AI, let’s start passing it into the hands of those who can, and will, solve problems rather than creating them.