AI is targeting some of the world’s biggest problems: homelessness, terrorism, and extinction

Above: Cody is one of a handful of homeless youth in Los Angeles identified as peer leaders by the HEAL algorithm.

Making AI models at the University of Southern California (USC) Center for AI in Society does not involve a clean, sorted dataset. Sometimes it means interviewing homeless youth in Los Angeles to map human social networks. Sometimes it involves going to Uganda for better conservation of endangered species.

“With AI, we are able to reach 70 percent of the youth population in the pilot, compared to about 25 percent in the standard techniques. So AI algorithms are able to reach far more youth in terms of spreading HIV information compared to traditional methods,” said Milind Tambe, a professor at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and cofounder of the Center for AI in Society. “If I were doing AI normally I might get data from the outside and I would analyze the data, produce algorithms, and so forth, but I wouldn’t go to a homeless shelter.”

The pilot project will next be expanding to serve 1,000 youth. Other projects currently being taken on by the Center for AI in Society include gang prevention, wildlife conservation with computer vision, and predictive models to improve cybersecurity, prevent suicide, and help homeless youth find housing.

The center has also developed and deployed algorithms for federal agencies such as the U.S. Coast Guard, Air Marshals Service, and Transportation and Security Administration (TSA).

Tambe was one a handful of authors of a forward-looking report that examines how AI will evolve and affect business, government, and society between the present and 2030. Commissioned by Stanford University as part of The AI 100 Project, the study found that AI aimed at solving social problems has traditionally lacked investment because it produces no profitable commercial applications. The report prescribes making AI for low resource projects a higher priority and offering AI researchers incentives, but Tambe also believes an entirely new discipline may need to be developed.


Sasha Harriet

Sasha Harriet

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