Te innovation foundation’s AI for Good programme is aiding projects addressing social issues

Nesta puts AI focus on the common good


The potential for using artificial intelligence (AI) to address some of the most serious social chal- lenges of our time seemed clear to the team at Nesta, the innova- tion foundation. But in order to understand how computer-aided decision-making might be applied they wanted to see how it was al- ready being harnessed in Scotland. In 2019, Nesta in Scotland set out

to find organisations and individu- als working with AI to improve social issues such as reducing loneliness or making education more accessible, supporting young people or boosting health. Nesta’s AI for Good programme

attracted applications from more than 70 projects, and £15,000 grants were awarded to seven of them in January 2020. “We wanted to understand

what was the real lay of the land in Scotland when it comes to AI,” says Adam Lang, head of Nesta in Scotland, which is based at the Bayes Centre in Edinburgh. “On paper, we have fantas-

tic research institutions in our numerous universities and a supportive government which is developing an AI strategy. “But we wondered what could

be done to harness these tech- nologies for social good and by that we mean delivering benefits

to citizens and communities via public services, charities and environmental organisations. “We, as a team in Scotland,

have an interest in digital and technology-driven innovation, so we devised a programme to help us identify, shine a light on and showcase some of those innovators working with AI for social good.” As a result Nesta found a broad

range of projects from across Scotland, covering various sec- tors, many of them collaborations drawing on academic or commer- cial expertise in partnership with charities or the public sector. “We had over 70 applicants

which was an incredible testi- mony to the breadth and depth of interest,” says Lang. Te grant was only part of the

plan; the selected seven projects also received tailored support for their work. Had it not been for the huge disruption of Covid, there was also to have been a programme of public engagement from Nesta. “We intended to use our con-

vening power to showcase these works, raising awareness of the different ways AI can be used for social good,” says Lang. Although the plans were scaled

back, the project report has been published and it showcases AI’s potential for social good. AI is fast evolving; it is already

34 | FUTURESCOT | WINTER 2020/21

shaping our world with algo- rithms determining how we are marketed goods and services on Facebook, Amazon and Google, helping fly planes and in time driving our cars, and Lang sees a key role for Nesta. “We are keen to champion the

role of citizen engagement in the AI process – not just in how AI is delivered, but how it is designed and developed. “It is crucial that we con-

tinue to challenge ourselves and actively engage in that process in Scotland because otherwise you end up being shaped by it, rather than helping to shape it.” He points to a project at Heriot-

Watt University, which focuses on the existing gender stereotypes of virtual assistants. “I think that is why we were really taken by it. Tere is always a danger that technology like this can be elitist or exclusionary. Te Heriot-Watt

project stood out because it was about recognising, from the consumer side of AI, that many of these assistants don’t do well in their interactions. “We have to ensure that equity,

fairness and inclusion are all part of the development of these tools so we don’t you end up with products that are unintentionally discriminatory.” Lang sees a positive future.

“Tere is a real potential for using AI tools and AI systems to help us be smarter and more insightful in terms of addressing the chal- lenges we face in Scotland. If we at Nesta can play a small role with this AI for Good programme and showcase some of the potential, then we’ll consider that to be a win.” l

“Powering Good: Insights from Nesta’s AI for Good programme” is available on the Nesta website

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