Tapping AI to solve the world’s big problems
Microsoft has long been known for suites of products, Smith said, and the company is now bringing that approach to a new suite of programs, AI for Good. This initiative’s first program, AI for Earth, was started in 2017 and brings advances in computer science to four environmental areas of focus: biodiversity, water, agriculture and climate change.
Under this program, Microsoft is committing $50 million over five years to provide seed grants to nongovernmental organizations, startups and researchers in more than 20 countries, Smith said. The most promising projects will receive additional funding, and Microsoft will use insights gleaned to build new products and tools. The program is already showing success, Smith said — the use of AI helped farmers in Tasmania improve their yields by 15 percent while reducing environmental runoffs. And in Singapore, AI helped reduce electrical consumption in buildings by almost 15 percent.
“We’re finding that AI, indeed, has the potential to help solve some of the world’s most pressing problems,” he said.
Improving accessibility for people with disabilities
Computers can see and hear. They can tell people what’s going on around them. Those abilities position AI to help the more than one billion people worldwide who have disabilities, Smith said.
“One of the things we’ve learned over the last year is that it’s quite possible that AI can do more for people with disabilities than for any other group on the planet,” he said.
Recognizing that potential, Microsoft in May announced AI for Accessibility, a $25 million, five-year initiative focused on using AI to help people with disabilities. The program provides grants of technology, AI expertise and platform-level services to developers, NGOs, inventors and others working on AI-first solutions to improve accessibility. Microsoft is also investing in its own AI-powered solutions, such as real-time, speech-to-text transcription and predictive text functionality.
Smith pointed to Seeing AI, a free Microsoft app designed for people who are blind or have low vision, as an example of the company’s efforts. This app, which provides narration to describe a person’s surroundings, identify currency and even gauge emotions on people’s faces, has been used over four million times since being launched a year ago.
“AI is absolutely a game-changer for people with disabilities,” Smith said.
Governing AI: a Hippocratic Oath for coders?
For AI to fulfill its potential to serve humanity, it must adhere to “timeless values,” Smith said. But defining those values in a diverse world is challenging, he acknowledged. AI is “posing for computers every ethical question that has existed for people,” he said, and requires an approach that takes into account a broad range of philosophies and ethical traditions.
University students and professors have been seeking to create a Hippocratic Oath for AI, Smith said, similar to the pledge doctors take to uphold specific ethical standards. Smith said a broader global conversation about the ethics of AI is needed, and ultimately, a new legal framework.
“We’re going to have to develop these ethical principles, and we’re going to have to work through the details that sometimes will be difficult,” he said. “Because the ultimate question is whether we want to live in a future of artificial intelligence where only ethical people create ethical AI, or whether we want to live in a world where, at least to some degree, ethical AI is required and assured for all of us.
“There’s only one way to do that, and that is with a new generation of laws.”
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