Using AI to Assist Humanitarian Services

 |   Doris Hui

humanitarian

The rapid development of artificial intelligence (AI) enables digital transformation in various industries and brings positive impact to the economy. However, in addition to commercial applications, AI can also help tackle social problems, improve people’s livelihood and even save lives.

World Humanitarian Day (WHD) is held on the 19th of August every year and pays tribute to aid workers who risk their lives in humanitarian services. The day raises public awareness on humanitarian crises around the world. In face of ruthless natural and man-made disasters, global relief organizations often scramble to respond, and their rescue work is often difficult to scale. Thanks to technologies such as AI and cloud, humans are responding to humanitarian crises in an unprecedently innovative way, providing more effective assistance to people in need around the world.

Last year, Microsoft announced a US$40 million investment in AI for Humanitarian Action, a five-year initiative part of the AI for Good program. Microsoft partners with NGOs, academics and humanitarian organizations to provide them with access to technology and funding for the development and application of AI, particularly to address the needs of children and refugees, disaster relief and issues related to human rights. The following examples illustrate how innovative technologies such as AI can assist humanitarian services and bring sustainable and positive impact to society.

1. Forecast natural disasters and speed up post-disaster recovery

Even though humans are currently unable to prevent natural disasters from happening, we can leverage AI and data modeling to forecast and detect early signs of coming disasters more accurately, thereby helping relief organizations to better allocate resources. Microsoft, in a new partnership with the World Bank, United Nations and partners from the tech industry, will help relief organizations predict when and where future famines will occur so that aid can arrive earlier and potentially save more lives.

Immediate and efficient rescue work is crucial after a natural disaster. A team of researchers at Tohoku University in Japan looks into how technology can improve rescue response and post-disaster relief work. Traditionally, they needed to conduct damage mapping by field survey which could be time-consuming and inefficient. However, with the development of satellite observation technology, they can now perform damage mapping more efficiently with satellite images. Leveraging AI and machine learning technology, the researchers trained a damage recognizing model to conduct damage mapping. They applied it to the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and saw an encouraging accuracy rate of over 70 percent.

2. Combat human trafficking and protect children

Today, there are still many countries and regions around the world facing severe children trafficking problems. Some NGOs are using AI-enabled predictive analytics and programs to target both the supply and demand underpinning human trafficking, ultimately disrupting criminals and combating children trafficking crimes. Meanwhile, AI has also been applied to assist countless families in finding their long-lost loved ones. Microsoft collaborates with non-profit organization, Baobei Huijia (Baby Come Home), in Mainland China and uses AI technology to scan and identify facial features of missing children in photos. The technology then quickly compares the facial features with thousands of faces in the database, enhancing search efficiencies and accuracy to help the separated families reunite.

Lack of medical resources is also a challenge faced by many underdeveloped countries. Lots of children born with a cleft condition lack confidence because of their differences in appearance. They are rejected by their peers and even their families. Microsoft partners with NGO, Operation Smile, to use machine vision AI and facial modeling to improve the surgical outcomes of cleft lip and palate, bringing smiles to children in need of facial surgeries.

3. Break language barriers and improve the lives of refugees

The number of refugees in the world is at a record high and this is a seminal challenge of our generation. AI and machine learning will improve the lives of refugees by optimizing the delivery of aid (supplies and services). The technology can also help NGOs communicate effectively with refugees. Microsoft and its partners use AI technology to develop chatbots to connect displaced youth with free, high-quality educational resources. In addition, chatbots can help rescuers in the field communicate with refugees who speak different languages and/​​or have different cultural backgrounds.

4. Enhance forecast and analysis to support human rights protection

Microsoft collaborates with humanitarian organizations to develop solutions with deep learning capabilities to help monitor, detect and prevent human rights abuses. Utilizing AI-powered speech translation, people of different nationalities and backgrounds can easily connect with human rights lawyers for assistance.

Technologies like AI will continue to assist and improve humanitarian support and bring new hope to people in need around the world. Microsoft will continue to expand its AI applications across all areas and levels to ensure technology addresses societal needs, empowering every individual on the planet to achieve more.