After speaking at an MIT conference on emerging AI technology earlier this year, I entered a lobby full of industry vendors and noticed an open doorway leading to tall grass and shrubbery recreating a slice of the African plains. I had stumbled onto TrailGuard AI, Intel’s flagship AI for Good project, which the chip company describes as an artificial intelligence solution to the crime of wildlife poaching. Walking through the faux flora and sounds of the savannah, I emerged in front of a digital screen displaying a choppy video of my trek. The AI system had detected my movements and captured digital photos of my face, framed by a rectangle with the label “poacher” highlighted in red.
Mark Latonero (@latonero) is a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and a research lead at Data & Society.
I was handed a printout with my blurry image next to a picture of an elephant, along with text explaining that the TrailGuard AI camera alerts rangers to capture poachers before one of the 35,000 elephants each year are killed. Despite these good intentions, I couldn’t help but wonder: What if this happened to me in the wild? Would local authorities come to arrest me now that I had been labeled a criminal? How would I prove my innocence against the AI? Was the false positive a result of a tool like facial recognition, notoriously bad with darker skin tones, or was it something else about me? Is everyone a poacher in the eyes of Intel’s computer vision?
Intel isn’t alone. Within the last few years, a number of tech companies, from Google to Huawei, have launched their own programs under the AI for Good banner. They deploy technologies like machine-learning algorithms to address critical issues like crime, poverty, hunger, and disease. In May, French president Emmanuel Macron invited about 60 leaders of AI-driven companies, like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, to a Tech for Good Summit in Paris. The same month, the United Nations in Geneva hosted its third annual AI for Global Good Summit sponsored by XPrize. (Disclosure: I have spoken at it twice.) A recent McKinsey report on AI for Social Good provides an analysis of 160 current cases claiming to use AI to address the world’s most pressing and intractable problems.
While AI for good programs often warrant genuine excitement, they should also invite increased scrutiny. Good intentions are not enough when it comes to deploying AI for those in greatest need. In fact, the fanfare around these projects smacks of tech solutionism, which can mask root causes and the risks of experimenting with AI on vulnerable people without appropriate safeguards.
Tech companies that set out to develop a tool for the common good, not only their self-interest, soon face a dilemma: They lack the expertise in the intractable social and humanitarian issues facing much of the world. That’s why companies like Intel have partnered with National Geographic and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation on wildlife trafficking. And why Facebook partnered with the Red Cross to find missing people after disasters. IBM’s social-good program alone boasts 19 partnerships with NGOs and government agencies. Partnerships are smart. The last thing society needs is for engineers in enclaves like Silicon Valley to deploy AI tools for global problems they know little about.