January 9, 2018 : Rhodri Davies

AI and the third sector

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a hot topic right now. You can barely open a newspaper without reading an article about some new AI milestone, or a comment piece about why we are all going to lose our jobs to automation in the next decade.

At CAF we have been trying to stay one step ahead of this debate by thinking through some of the longer-term implications for charities. To my mind, these fall into three broad categories:

  • new ways for charities to achieve their mission
  • changing the way charities operate as organisations
  • new challenges for charities to address.

All of these will be important, and the pace of change means that we need to start developing strategies for each now.

New ways of delivering your charitable mission could involve using AI-powered chatbots to provide advice services to beneficiaries (with the benefits of lowering cost while maintaining quality, and also being available 24/7 for those who need them). Or it might involve applying “machine learning” techniques to huge sets of data to determine trends that can be used to shape more effective interventions (e.g. video footage from drones in Africa is being used to train algorithms that can predict where poachers are likely to be with a remarkable degree of accuracy).

Conversational AI is also likely to play a broader role in reshaping the way charities operate as organisations. Not only can chatbots be used by charities for all kinds of interactions with customers and supporters, but they are likely to become ubiquitous in our wider experience as a result of the increased use of conversational interfaces (like Amazon’s Alexa or Google’s Home). If, in future, people make donations through these sorts of interfaces, it could have major implications for charities because the algorithms determining which information an individual is presented with will dictate which organisations are able to reach potential supporters. This may require totally new approaches to fundraising and communications.

AI could also present wider societal challenges that charities will have to deal with. If automation leads to many jobs becoming obsolete in the near future, large numbers of people will have to adapt to a post-work world. Given that employment is so strongly tied up with our notions of purpose and self-worth, this is likely to prove challenging. Charities and other civil society organisations will have to play a key role in helping people to manage the transition.

There is also growing mainstream awareness of the dangers of “algorithmic bias”: the phenomenon by which algorithms that learn from large data sets that contain historic biases come to reflect, and even strengthen, those biases over time. If these processes are operated in an opaque, “black box” manner, then individuals and communities can find themselves unfairly discriminated against without even being aware of it. Given that many charities exist to represent the most marginalised and vulnerable people in our society, they will have to ensure that they are equipped to speak up for them if they are affected in this way.

Like any technology, AI is neither good nor bad in and of itself. There are utopian versions of the future of AI and there are dystopian ones; and neither is inevitable. It will be about how we manage the development of the technology so that we maximise its potential to create positive benefits for society and minimise any unintended negative consequences. Charities need to ensure that they play a role in this debate so that they continue to meet the needs of their beneficiaries and remain relevant and resilient in the future.

Rhodri Davies is from CAF’s think tank Giving Thought, and will be joining automation researcher Dr Kendra Briken (University of Strathclyde), Tom Cheesewright (https://bookofthefuture.co.uk) and SCVO’s Policy Team at ‘Rise of the robots: how will automation affect the third sector?’ at this year’s Gathering. The discussion will cover new technology in the sector, better services, reducing inequalities – and whether a robot could really take your job. Hosted by SCVO Digital Director David McNeill, you can book your place here.

Important: Opinions expressed by bloggers are their own and don't represent those of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations.

by Rhodri Davies