I have recently been interviewed by the Third Sector magazine about my thoughts on artificial intelligence (AI). For those that are staring at this page blankly, AI is the theory and development of computer systems which are able to perform tasks normally requiring human intelligence, such as visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making, and translation between languages.

This must be differentiated from machine learning, which is the application of AI that provides systems the ability to automatically learn and improve from experience without being explicitly programmed. Does what it says on the tin.

It makes some shudder. “We’re a traditional charity, quite happy with the way we are doing things, there’s no bot that can replace a human hand – hasta la vista, baby”. It makes some jump for joy. “Embedding AI is crucial to ensuring we are being cost and resource efficient”. Yet others think of a post-apocalyptic world dominated by madly intelligent machine learned robots who keep humans as their slaves. I think I’ll stick with Will Smith and Sonny, or even Arnie (when he was the good Terminator) – if that ever happens.

AI poses both risks and opportunities – and it will take me years to unpack this, considering how much of a debate it and its application is, in this day and age. There are others that have done that unpacking already (Google it), so I’d rather not bore you with the details. However, I would like to share a few of my thoughts about how AI could be relevant for the charity sector.

The opportunities AI offers to charities and why they need to take them:

  • Enhancing charities’ corporate services e.g. IT support bots, HR advice / information; virtual assistants
  • Digitisation of handwritten notes
  • Live Translation. One charity has been working with Microsoft to test the first machine-learned translation tool. They considered how this would reduce the cost of their work with their client base and how it would improve the quality over telephone translators
  • Mining data to identify insight and trends more quickly or that otherwise might be missed by the human eye
  • Public-facing virtual assistants that provide our beneficiaries with tailored information; making information more accessible and helping in cost and time efficiencies being made. The Children’s Society, in partnership with Bethnal Green Ventures, is sponsoring and supporting a number of social tech ventures, 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
  • Give advice to potential donors and help people choose how to donate. This will reduce the costs to the charities investing human resource into these areas. I believe one of the programme managers at Giving Thought (which is the in-house think tank at CAF) stated that AI could make philanthropy advice a “mass-market commodity”, open to the general public rather than targeted purely at the wealthy.

What are the barriers to endorsing and incorporating AI?

  • The risks and ethical questions associated with AI, including the concern that machines will outperform humans in nearly all intellectual domains, misuse, safety, accidents and harmful societal effects.
  • Cost
  • supplier knowledge (i.e. no one is bringing products to the charity sector)
  • Demand far outstripping supply of workers
  • Poor quality of the data that charities hold
  • Ease with which charities are able to transfer the data to other agencies to do the machine learning

Although very early days, we can already start to see AI being applied to large datasets to provide insights and analytics to help organisations to make better decisions, promote their cause, fundraise more smartly and intelligently, and also help charities to better collaborate, and around specific causes.

Increasingly, AI is being used without you knowing about it. AI is choosing what social media posts / trends you see, translating your text and doing your speech recognition, etc.

There are obvious considerations to be made, including the risks and issues that AI poses. Thought must be given to an ethical framework for AI. This is critical.

What I’d say to interested charities is to keep an eye on the latest AI trends and good practice in all sectors, and specifically on how it can be translated for the charity sector.

Watch the leaders in this field and what they’re developing, and how they’re implementing it.

Have a think about which areas of your business this type of development might apply to and how it might solve a problem, issue or challenge.

It is highly recommended to find partners with AI design and delivery experience with which to work, rather than trying to do it all in-house, as this can become a very expensive exercise!

Despite these caveats, I believe that we are offering a very exciting new way to change systems and processes. This includes how we might use it to speed up the impact the charity sector can have for beneficiaries, using AI.

So to answer my own question about charities and AI – I’m sticking with the rose-tinted Ex- Machina for now. It’s of course, the perfect AI love story.