Phil Nadeau

Post 0: Why Should You Care?

This is the first post in a series of blog articles that I will be writing for Salesforce.org’s developers’ blog about Artificial Intelligence, the public good, and what nonprofits should know about AI. We will, of course, cover the things you’d expect, like tools, use cases, the theory and practice of AI, and so on.

But for our very first article, our “Post Zero,” I want to cover the most important question:

Why should you care?

It would be easy to blow past this question and jump right into things like Scala’s MLlib or Norvig’s textbook. I might assume that you have an interest in technology, and because this is the Salesforce.org blog, I might also assume that you have an interest in nonprofit operations, and (very likely) in what might loosely be termed “the public good.” Knowing all of that, it would be easy to talk at length about the what and how of AI without addressing the why.

But let’s not make that assumption, because it turns out that why you (or anyone) should care about AI, is as important as what it is, or how it works.

It wasn’t that long ago that, in the mind of the public, “artificial intelligence” was the stuff of science fiction, and broadly speaking, it still is. In fact, I remember saying to someone in 2010 that I work with AI, and she responded, “That sounds a bit like Star Trek.”

There is a growing understanding that AI is now a practical field. AI’s influence is already felt in the ads you see and the posts you read. It may not surprise you to see AI features show up in technological fields, like drone aircraft and medical imaging. You may know that machine learning (a vast subfield within AI) already drives algorithmic trading systems and spam filters.

What’s novel is the collision of cheap big data systems with ubiquitous data collection (via mobile devices and the Internet of Things) and the increasing influence of networks on human behavior — in everything from the way we hail cabs, to the way we share pictures of children and pets, to how we vote. This novel combination of circumstances enables AI in new fields, like municipal government, law enforcement, and public budgeting.

Further, there’s growing evidence that AI only works well when there’s a quality process that closely engages the people that have to live with the consequences of the system. That quality process isn’t always cheap to implement or easy to get right — resulting in some shocking cases of abuse and bias in high-profile products like Google Image Search.

I’ve come to personally believe that the most likely way to get beneficial AI is for the public to demand and work towards responsible use of AI. Otherwise, I believe that AI will worsen the digital divide and have other unpleasant social and economic consequences. The goal of this series is to educate interested parties (particularly nonprofits) so that they can both use AI themselves, and encourage responsible use by others.

Our plan has three methods. Individual posts will focus on at least one of these themes:

So to answer my first question: why should you care?

I’m asking you to care about AI so that we can all have a brighter future.

Follow along, and I’ll do my best to show you how to get there.