AI will have ‘profound implications’ for charities

14 Jun 2018 News

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is likely to have “profound implications” for civil society in three broad ways, according to a new paper by the Charities Aid Foundation. 

Machine-Made Goods: Charities, Philanthropy and Artificial Intelligence is authored by Rhodri Davies, head of policy and programme leader for the Giving Thought thinktank at CAF. He urges charities to get to grips with the issues around AI and to build stronger partnerships with relevant organisations.

Davies says that firstly, AI will offer “new ways of achieving mission”. Secondly, it will change how civil society organisations (CSOs) operate in terms of governance and internal processes. And thirdly, it will present new challenges for society. 

“It is vital that CSOs keep abreast of the issues and how they potentially relate to their work,” the report says, adding that it is “crucial that there are opportunities to work with the tech sector to explore the possibilities for using AI for social good”. 

New ways to achieve mission 

The report says there are a number of ways that charities could use AI to further their mission, although there are still few examples of them doing so in practice. 

One opportunity is to make information more accessible through tools like chatbots. An example of this is Arthritis Research UK’s virtual personal assistant, which was built with IBM Watson.

Another opportunity is data analysis - by using machine learning algorithms, data can be analysed at greater speed and scale. For example, Moorfields Eye Hospital has partnered with Google DeepMind to develop more effective diagnostic tools.

The paper says that charities are often cautious about being early adopters because “new technologies (often quite rightly) are seen as high-risk”.

AI’s impact on how charities operate

Charities, like other sectors, are likely to see “significant disruption” to governance and operating models, the report says. 

It highlights automation in areas such as call centres, driverless cars for organisations with complex logistics, and regulators and governments being able to adopt “more preventative regulation” with issues being identified sooner. 

AI could also change how people give to charity. “If AI could be applied to automate philanthropy advice in the same way that it has been used to automate financial advice, then...this could have a massive impact on the ways in which people give,” the report says. 

For example, algorithms could be used to tailor suggestions to people on social media based on what causes they and their peer group are interested in.

New challenges 

The report says there are likely to be “unintended negative consequences” of AI which will affect the people and communities charities work with, which is why all charities should be making themselves familiar with the issues. 

“If many existing social and environmental issues increasingly become technology issues as well in the future, but the CSOs whose missions are to address those problems fail to adapt, then civil society will fall short in its duty,” it said. 

Future challenges could include autonomous weaponry, fake news being spread with malicious intent, and the creation of “deepfakes” – videos that are indistinguishable from real footage. 

The report also said that algorithmic bias, whereby algorithms learn from data sets with ingrained bias and perpetuate discrimination, poses a particular challenge for civil society. 

Charities can “play a vital role in highlighting these challenges and dangers to the companies and organisations implementing new algorithms, as well as the policymakers responsible for formulating new laws and regulation designed to govern them,” it said.


The report calls for charities to be involved in the debate over AI in a meaningful way. This may mean that there needs to additional support from funders and infrastructure bodies, as well as government and the tech sector. 

It also says that any economic or industrial strategy for AI should include “some assessment of the impact on civil society (both positive and negative), and the steps required to maximised the positive impact whilst minimising the negative”. 

Rhodri Davies will be speaking at the Charity Technology Conference, which takes place on 7 November 2018. For more information and to book click here. 



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