The problem

If the hype is to be believed, developments in artificial intelligence will have enormous consequences and shape much of our world. But there is often a lack of good problem definition with alarming consequences.

Firstly, the predominantly rich, and often male creators of AI technologies are struggling to walk in the shoes of significant chunks of society — for example, women, ethnic minorities and the poor.

Secondly, whilst big problems are being tackled, most of the activity is in delivering value creation, optimisation and efficiency for the few not the many. This is supposed to be a revolutionary technology but it is not being prioritised at the biggest problems we face.

The challenge

How could a campaigning organisation like Friends of the Earth make use of this emerging technology, cut through the hype and discover what (if any) is our role in shaping its future development?

How might we demonstrate the power and potential of artificial intelligence to our colleagues and influence practitioners to use it for good?

What if… 

We could combine the best of human and machine in approaches that are accessible and aimed at the biggest problems we face.

Our approach

We started out from almost complete ignorance with two questions: Could we meaningfully contribute in this space? How might the technological developments help us deliver our work?

We read a lot, we interviewed people, we hosted lunches at AI conferences, we spoke to computer science students and tried building an image recognition device. We even tried to use machine learning to recognise bees.

What we tested

We built a Facebook chat bot to filter and answer our most common supporter queries – now in daily use by our Enquiries team. 

Partnering with the IBM Watson Guild we prototyped an application making it easier to reuse takeaway containers to reduce single-use plastic waste. We also worked with apprentices from ADA, the National College of Digital Skills, to develop prototype applications.

What we learned

Here's a summary of what we learned. The short version is that civil society urgently needs to engage with the development of the technology to prioritise the right problems and we need to work on a human shaped future that ensures this technology does not exacerbate current bias or inequality.

What's next

We remain convinced that artificial intelligence will have a major impact on our work and are partnering with Cambridge and Exeter Universities AI Doctoral centres.  

If you have ideas to share about AI and environmental problem solving, please get in touch.