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The artificial intelligence revolution is already here. How will nonprofits adapt?

Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash

Robot. Cyborg. Android. Artificial intelligence (A.I.): terms that describe elements of automation and the incorporation of technology into our daily lives. Robots can mean different things to different people, depending on their exposure to the term. Roboticist Anca Dragan of UC Berkeley says, "A robot is a physically embodied, artificially intelligent agent that can take actions that have effects on the physical world." A robot can look like a car, a computer, a human, a puppy — it doesn’t matter the form. What matters is that it can be programmed to process information and, at differing levels, to learn.

The artificial intelligence and machine learning industries are forecasted to reach a market value of $1.2 trillion by 2020, and will touch every aspect of human life, the nonprofit sector included.

Robots for daily, menial care

In addition to vacuuming, robots can already mop our floors and mow our lawns. Experimental robots help lift people into and out of chairs and beds, follow recipes, fold towels and dispense pills. Soon, autonomous, self-driving cars will ferry people to appointments and gatherings.

Robots already available include models that drive, provide pet-like social companionship and greet customers. Some of these technologies are already in limited trials in nursing homes, and many households already rely on their own Roombas, "smart" security systems and other AI devices.

Robots as friends, companions and childminders

You can buy your own robot online. For instance, meet Kuri, a robot that responds when touched "in a truly personal way," via sensors that respond to a tap on Kuri’s head. When touched, Kuri raises its head, makes "eye" contact and chirps in a friendly manner. It learns the layout of your home, your schedules and can act as your eyes and ears when you're away. Kuri, says the homepage, "with its emotive eyes and friendly disposition, will always inspire and create connections in your home." Always? Is anyone thinking best babysitter, ever?

Robots as your new nonprofit employees?

On my desk, still in an unopened box, sits my new Amazon Echo. Powered by Alexa Voice Service, Echo is intended to act as my first ever robot administrative assistant: providing contact info, doing research, making and receiving calls, playing my favorite news station, ordering my takeout lunch or whatever may come to mind. I haven’t set it up yet because it seems just a little bit too intrusive for my liking.

Recent tech-related privacy scandals give me pause about allowing total and unfettered access to details, however mundane they may be, to daily life. I assume Alexa hears and records everything, faithfully relaying my personal preference data to the MotherShip (Amazon) and any of the thousands of companies to which they sell data. Nonetheless, as with most technology, I’ll probably get used to (or is it numb to?) the idea and soon have my first unpaid 24/7 employee.

Welcome to the Robot Therapist

Psychiatric patients often prefer robots to personal doctor visits. For instance, while all the reasons for this preference are as yet not completely understood, numerous studies show that computers are better at spotting depression than their human mental health counterparts. Patients were more likely to honestly communicate with a computer than with a human, and computers were more able to recognize and process cues from patients. In another example, researchers from Vanderbilt University recently designed an AI model that predicted suicide risk, using electronic health records, with 84 to 92 percent accuracy within one week of a suicide event, and 80 to 86 percent within two years.

As for individuals with autism, research has already shown that they can be even more responsive to treatment using social robots than with human therapists due to their difficulty with social cues. For this reason, several different programs have been developed to use electronic or robot tools for treating autistics. These include the AuRoRa Project. Project and the IROMEC Project.

Robots and A.I. are here to stay

For many, the positive uses of AI are offset by the potential for harm: superhuman intelligence without human guidance, morals or ethics. We fear an uncertain future where our nonprofit jobs, so often sourced in our compassion and care for others, are replaced by machines. Some jobs will be at risk, yet many people in nonprofits, such as social workers, will be adapt their skills and knowledge to meet these changes in technology and societal advances.

At the same time, we are confronted with an aging population that may need more care than the living can support. And if robots can provide high-quality mental health services, education and release us all from menial tasks, why not? After all, the question isn’t IF robots will begin to become part of our nonprofit caregiving services, it’s when, how much and for what purposes.

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MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.

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Co-founder and CEO of MissionBox, founder and president of MissionBox Philanthropic Fund, founder and past CEO of Community TechKnowledge