As artificial intelligence (AI) is officially out of the realms of academic speculation and science fiction, many are questioning how its many applications could benefit humankind as a whole rather than just a few corporations. However, this is not the time or place to start a debate about the ethical implications of a widespread takeover of AI technologies. Today's question is much simpler: How can AI advancements help humans improve their lives by assisting the most philanthropic humans who already devoted their existences to help the less fortunate? Or, in simpler terms, what are the most interesting AI applications for the charity sector? (To learn more about how AI is helping humanity, check out The 5 Most Amazing AI Advances in Health Care.)

Optimized Philanthropic Efforts

According to the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF), a new form of data-driven AI philanthropy could help make charity advice a new mass commodity that is available to everyone rather than just the richest few. Only a deep learning algorithm could, in fact, make full use of the immense amount of raw user data currently available to optimize the online donor experience. Data collected from online donation portals that algorithms using social benchmarking could be used to show donors information about causes which are more appropriate to their interests.

AI matching donors to causes can help reduce the advertising costs of philanthropy advice, leading to better and more effective giving. Young people in particular, in fact, are more likely to associate themselves with causes rather than organizations, as the Millenial Impact report found. Algorithms are not prejudiced and could easily identify the donor's aims based on their experience, even when the donor holds unconscious biases, and match the content shown with their values, even when prejudice might affect their decisions.

But efficient charity is not just about finding funds, but spending them most optimally as well. AI has always been a great equalizer and can easily channel money where it is needed most, with no risk for biased or partisan choices. AI could be used as advisors that help people identify the best methods for achieving social good and the areas where the humanitarian and environmental needs are more urgent.

Protecting the Wildlife: The PAWS Project

Protecting animal species on the verge of extinction is not exactly "charity," but it is a fundamental service rendered to humanity nonetheless. Poaching of endangered species is the cause of three out of nine species extinctions. This practice alone led to a drop of the global tiger population of over 95 percent from the start of the last century and a 30 percent decline in elephant populations between 2007 and 2014. The governmental agencies set up to protect wildlife reserves, however, operate in countries that sorely lack the resources to cover the large-sized reserves where these animals live.

To even the playing field with poachers, a new AI-powered system has been set in place: PAWS (Protection Assistant for Wildlife Security). This program is built on concepts and models from security games to improve the efficiency of the limited patrol units. PAWS' machine-learning algorithm is fed through information coming from previous patrolling and poaching activities, which is then integrated with game-theoretic reasoning to predict poachers' behaviors. The result is a series of AI-controlled patrolling schedules and route planning strategy that keeps getting more and more efficient as additional data is collected. So far, PAWS has been successfully used in Uganda and Malaysia, where it outperformed previous patrols in spotting human and animal activity per kilometer.

Chatbots and Virtual Assistants

Chatbots and virtual assistants (which, as we know, are two practical applications of AI technology) are being developed to assist charity efforts. As "smart speakers" such as Amazon Echo and Google Home become increasingly popular, people are getting used to talking with their virtual assistants to the point they're literally becoming a smart digital member of the family. This, in turn, could make the donation process much easier and quicker, as it doesn't require more than just saying "Siri, give $100 to the Red Cross earthquake relief fund." (For more on the future of chatbots, see We Asked IT Pros How Enterprises Will Use Chatbots in the Future. Here’s What They Said.)

In the meantime, patients affected by arthritis have been introduced to an AI-powered chatbot appropriately named "Arthy." Powered by IBM Watson, this virtual assistant was introduced by the nonprofit organization Arthritis Research UK to help people with arthritis answer their many questions about their condition, its impact on their routine activities, the most alarming symptoms and the treatment options available. This support service will cost just a fraction than if it involved human advisors, and is much more accessible at any time. Its content was originally written by a new generation of content producers called "cognitive editors." But once Watson's learning abilities kicked in, it was able to learn from every interaction with the patients, and hone the tone of its (should we say "his"?) conversations accordingly.

The Universal Translator

Machine's ability to speak goes much beyond a simple chatbot. The British Children’s Society started using the Microsoft’s AI-powered Translator live feature to overcome linguistic communication barriers with young migrants and refugees in London. This new tool allows the user to have a fluent conversation using a smartphone with a person who speaks a different language. The software translates in real time, removing the need for third-party interpreters who can hamper the process of building personal trust with the young refugee. Technologies like this one are especially impressive if we think how close they come to the universal translator tools that we were used to seeing only in sci-fi series such as Star Trek.

The opportunities provided by AI to the world of charities and philanthropy are quite abundant, and are already starting to influence its development. The true potential of intelligent machines in helping humankind achieve its goals of equality has yet to be discovered, however. Even with these cutting-edge technologies, we're just exploring the outer reaches of this incredibly vast space.