Artificial Intelligence and the Sustainable Development Goals: Resources and References

By Kim Ochs*


Disclaimer: The inclusion of apps and services featured in this article does not reflect any product endorsement. Links to commercial websites are not affiliate links.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is positioned to play an important role in the race to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. Satellite images, mobile phones, and big data have enabled the development and implementation of AI across developing countries in diverse applications and settings.

In the area of agriculture, for example, Aerobotics is helping African farmers use drones and satellite images to optimize tree and crop yields. In the area of conservation, WWF installed long-range cameras with AI in Malawi to detect poachers. AI is also being used to increase access to financial services, such as Kudi, a Nigerian company, with its chatbot for bill payments available on messaging apps such as Skype and Telegram. Applications in global health include facial recognition technology being used to identify malnutrition in children, such as Kimetrica’s Methods for Extremely Rapid Observation of Nutritional Status (MERON) technology or Child Growth Monitor from Welthungerhilfe, or the use of teleradiology and AI to prioritise Covid cases in Africa.

As AI continues to be deployed in developing countries and emerging economies, at local, national, and regional levels, here are a few recommended resources to understand and follow the development of AI, and its impact in relation to the SDGs:

The nine Principles for Digital Development is a set of widely accepted best practices in the Information and Communications Technologies for Development (ICT4D) field: design with the user; understand the existing ecosystem; design for scale; build for sustainability; be data driven; use open standards, open data, open source, and open innovation; reuse and improve; address privacy and security; and be collaborative. (In April 2021, the Digital Impact Alliance, steward of the digital principles, has an upcoming webinar on applying the digital principals to AI regulations and responsibilities.) The digital principles were created in consultation with major donors, development agencies, and multinational organisations to create a community of practice for those working globally in digital development, which includes AI solutions.

As described in one of the nine guiding Principles for Digital Development, ‘well-designed initiatives and digital tools consider the particular structures and needs that exist in each country, region, and community’. Understanding the context and its complexities is important in the development and implementation of any AI solution. This report by the Inter-American Development Bank, Artificial intelligence and social good in Latin America and the Caribbean, provides a good overview of important contextual issues for AI and development in the region. Proceedings from the 2019 Regional Forum on AI in Latin America and the Caribbean, convened by UNESCO, also provide good background information.

Relevant to the African continent is the 2019 Sharm El Sheikh declaration, adopted by African Union member states. In addition to promoting and implementing the Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa (2020- 2030), it calls for the establishment of both a working group on AI based on existing initiatives and an AI think tank to “assess and recommend projects to collaborate on” in line of Agenda 2063: The Africa we want and SDGs.

At the global level, AI for Good is the leading United Nations platform on AI, organised by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and XPrize, which publishes reports and hosts various webinars aimed at business, government, civil society, and international cooperation. It also provides a platform for AI entrepreneurs to pitch an idea or start-up to the AI for Good Innovation Factory. Related initiatives include various focus groups, such as AI4Health, Machine Learning for Future Networks and 5G, AI for Environmental Efficiency, and AI for Natural Disaster Management, which produce white papers and case studies. AI is also an area of interest for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Accelerator Labs, a learning network on sustainable development challenges, which reports that 29% of its lab team members can perform tasks related to AI and machine learning.

In the area of agriculture, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, AI could play a significant role in achieving the goal to feed an estimated global population of nearly 10 billion by 2050. In 2020, the Rome Call for AI Ethics co-signed by the FAO, IBM and Microsoft, which summarises key definitions, rights, and principles to guide this work.

UNICEF’s Generation AI initiative, which is a partnership with The World Economic Forum, UC Berkeley, Article One, Microsoft and others, was created to set and lead the global agenda on AI and children. Among their outputs is a 2019 Memorandum on Artificial Intelligence and Child Rights.

In an earlier article in this newsletter about AI in education, I mentioned the Beijing Consensus on AI and Education, which is a seminal policy document that outlines recommendations for governments and other stakeholders working on sustainable development issues related to education.

FAIR Forward - Artificial Intelligence for All is an example of a cooperative AI initiative fostered by a national development organisation. The German Development Corporation (GIZ) partnered with five countries—Ghana, Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda, and India— to pursue three goals: “Strengthen local technical know-how on AI; Remove entry barriers to AI; and Develop policy frameworks ready for AI.” Activities to date have included support for the SmartAfrica, which is developing a pan-African AI policy blueprint; the Lacuna Fund to mobilise funding for labelled datasets, and the development of open voice technology in local languages.

Private sector companies, spanning start-ups to multinationals with AI products, are engaged in major efforts working towards the SDGs. The AI for Sustainable Development Goals (AI4SDGs) Think Tank provides a useful search tool to browse by goals and identify initiatives by companies, start-ups and partnership activities that are addressing specific goals. Examples include The AIY Vision Kit from Google (addressing SDGs 4, 8, and 9), The City Brain project, created by DAMO Academy, Alibaba (addressing SDGs 9 and 11), and FUJITSU’s project to use deep learning to estimate the degree of internal damage to bridge infrastructure (addressing SDGs 9 and 11).

2030Vision, which is a partnership of businesses, NGOs, and academia hosted by the World Economic Forum, published this overview report, AI & The Sustainable Development Goals: The State of Play, which provides some helpful definitions and highlights examples of AI projects and initiatives relates to all of the SDGs. Among the partners is Microsoft, with its AI for Good initiative, which publishes calls for grants to support projects and ideas to solve global challenges in humanitarian action and other SDG-related areas.

Alliance4AI is a consortium of start-ups, researchers, and organisations working on or with AI in Africa. Many of the 100 African AI start-ups they profiled focus on sustainable development and related challenges in the areas of agriculture, healthcare, and accessible financial services.

AI is projected to play a significant role in development. According to consulting firm PWC, the use of AI for environmental applications could reduce global greenhouse gas emission by around 1.5 – 4.0% by 2030. Innovative partnerships and alliances will be important to realise the potential of AI, not only to address climate change, but also the SDGs.

*Kim Ochs has been active in the field of educational technology for more than a decade, spanning work in higher education, research, and start-ups, working with international organisations, NGOs, private companies, and edtech investors. Kim holds a doctorate in educational studies from the University of Oxford.


The next edition of the Leading with AI newsletter will be published on Thursday, 15th April. We wish everyone happy holidays.

Loading more posts…