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Machine learning and AI for social good: views from NIPS 2017

December 20, 2017

By Jessica Montgomery, Senior Policy Adviser

In early December, 8000 machine learning researchers gathered in Long Beach for 2017’s Neural Information Processing Systems conference. In the margins of the conference, the Royal Society and Foreign and Commonwealth Office Science and Innovation Network brought together some of the leading figures in this community to explore how the advances in machine learning and AI that were being showcased at the conference could be harnessed in a way that supports broad societal benefits. This highlighted some emerging themes, at both the meeting and the wider conference, on the use of AI for social good.

The question is not ‘is AI good or bad?’ but ‘how will we use it?’

Behind (or beyond) the headlines proclaiming that AI will save the world or destroy our jobs, there lie significant questions about how, where, and why society will make use of AI technologies. These questions are not about whether the technology itself is inherently productive or destructive, but about how society will choose to use it, and how the benefits of its use can be shared across society.

In healthcare, machine learning offers the prospect of improved diagnostic tools, new approaches to healthcare delivery, and new treatments based on personalised medicine.  In transport, machine learning can support the development of autonomous driving systems, as well as enabling intelligent traffic management, and improving safety on the roads.  And socially-assistive robotics technologies are being developed to provide assistance that can improve quality of life for their users. Teams in the AI Xprize competition are developing applications across these areas, and more, including education, drug-discovery, and scientific research.

Alongside these new applications and opportunities come questions about how individuals, communities, and societies will interact with AI technologies. How can we support research into areas of interest to society? Can we create inclusive systems that are able to navigate questions about societal biases? And how can the research community develop machine learning in an inclusive way?

Creating the conditions that support applications of AI for social good

Applying AI to public policy challenges often requires access to complex, multi-modal data about people and public services. While many national or local government administrations, or non-governmental actors, hold significant amounts of data that could be of value in applications of AI for social good, this data can be difficult to put to use. Institutional, cultural, administrative, or financial barriers can make accessing the data difficult in the first instance. If accessible in principle, this type of data is also often difficult to use in practice: it might be held in outdated systems, be organised to different standards, suffer from compatibility issues with other datasets, or be subject to differing levels of protection. Enabling access to data through new frameworks and supporting data management based on open standards could help ease these issues, and these areas were key recommendations in the Society’s report on machine learning, while our report on data governance sets out high-level principles to support public confidence in data management and use.

In addition to requiring access to data, successful research in areas of social good often require interdisciplinary teams that combine machine learning expertise with domain expertise. Creating these teams can be challenging, particularly in an environment where funding structures or a pressure to publish certain types of research may contribute to an incentives structure that favours problems with ‘clean’ solutions.

Supporting the application of AI for social good therefore requires a policy environment that enables access to appropriate data, supports skills development in both the machine learning community and in areas of potential application, and that recognises the role of interdisciplinary research in addressing areas of societal importance.

The Royal Society’s machine learning report comments on the steps needed to create an environment of careful stewardship of machine learning, which supports the application of machine learning, while helping share its benefits across society. The key areas for action identified in the report – in creating an amenable data environment, building skills at all levels, supporting businesses, enabling public engagement, and advancing research – aim to create conditions that support the application of AI for social good.

Research in areas of societal interest

In addition to these application-focused issues, there are broader challenges for machine learning research to address some of the ethical questions raised around the use of machine learning.

Many of these areas were explored by workshops and talks at the conference. For example, a tutorial on fairness explored the tools available for researchers to examine the ways in which questions about inequality might affect their work.  A symposium on interpretability explored the different ways in which research can give insights into the sometimes complex operation of machine learning systems.  Meanwhile, a talk on ‘the trouble with bias’ considered new strategies to address bias.

The Royal Society has set out how a new wave of research in key areas – including privacy, fairness, interpretability, and human-machine interaction – could support the development of machine learning in a way that addresses areas of societal interest. As research and policy discussions around machine learning and AI progress, the Society will be continuing to play an active role in catalysing discussions about these challenges.

For more information about the Society’s work on machine learning and AI, please visit our website at:

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