Sustainability

How Can AI Help in Achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals?

by
Jon Reilly
,
July 17, 2021

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a set of targets that call for international action to protect the planet, ensure economic prosperity, and achieve other crucial goals for humanity. 

These 17 goals offer a roadmap for sustainable development, with 169 targets to be achieved by 2030. 

The SDGs were adopted on September 25th of 2015 by the United Nations Summit in New York City as part of an effort to "transform our world" over the next 15 years, because it was clear that much needed to be done. 

As outlined by UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed: "To eradicate poverty, address climate change and build peaceful, inclusive societies for all by 2030, key stakeholders, including governments, must drive implementation of the SDGs at a much faster rate and at much larger scale."

To achieve these ambitious goals, we need to use all the tools in our arsenal, including artificial intelligence. In this article, we’ll explore how AI systems can help in achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

What are the UN SDG Goals?

There are 17 Sustainable Development Goals:

  • No Poverty
  • Zero Hunger
  • Good Health and Well-being
  • Quality Education
  • Gender Equality
  • Clean Water and Sanitation
  • Affordable and Clean Energy
  • Decent Work and Economic Growth
  • Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure
  • Reducing Inequality
  • Sustainable Cities and Communities
  • Responsible Consumption and Production
  • Climate Action
  • Life Below Water
  • Life on Land
  • Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions
  • Partnerships for the Goals

Let’s first briefly explore each goal.

No Poverty

This goal is to end poverty in all its forms, everywhere. In particular, the main target is to eradicate extreme poverty—or living on less than $1.90 a day. Up to 1 in 12 people have fallen into poverty due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This will require a swift mobilization of resources and sound policy frameworks supporting poverty eradication strategies.

Zero Hunger

A quarter of a billion people are on the brink of starvation. Main targets include eradicating all forms of malnutrition, which is particularly prevalent among vulnerable people, including adolescent girls, pregnant and lactating women, and older persons in developing countries. This will require investment in agricultural research and technology, gene banks, food reserves, and more.

Good Health and Well-being

Good health and well-being includes the targets of reducing maternal mortality, ending preventable death among children, and ending AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, and other diseases. This will be achieved by improving the recruitment, development, training, and retention of the health workforce; strengthening early warning, risk reduction and management of national and global challenges; and more.

Quality Education

This goal is about ensuring that each person has the opportunity to achieve their full potential through education. Quality education is important for society, for economic growth, and for the peace and security of the world.

Gender Equality

Gender equality is not only a moral and human rights issue; it's also an economic imperative. So with the understanding that women are half the world’s population, and produce 70% of Africa’s food, achieving gender equality is key to eradicating extreme poverty and hunger. Moreover, women are on the frontlines of fighting the coronavirus, similarly accounting for 70% of health and social workers.

Clean Water and Sanitation

Astonishingly, over 4 billion people lack safely managed sanitation, and nearly half of healthcare facilities have no alcohol-based sanitizer, or even soap and water. Water scarcity will also become a major source of climate refugees. Solving these challenges will require improvements in desalination, water efficiency, wastewater treatment, and recycling and reuse technologies.

Affordable and Clean Energy

Close to a billion people lack any form of electricity. Clean energy can include renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, as well as nuclear power. Clean energy can also be achieved by making energy efficiency enhancements to buildings and other structures.

Decent Work and Economic Growth

The goal of "decent work and economic growth" is to create a fair and productive economic environment for all people. This goal is to ensure that working people are able to enjoy a decent standard of living, with opportunities for economic growth and social inclusion. It is also to promote sustainable patterns of production and consumption.

Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure

The goal of industry, innovation, and infrastructure is to develop sustainable industrial and agricultural practices that conserve resources, reduce the release of hazardous substances, and produce quality goods. Investments in better research and development, policies that shape markets to encourage sustainable industries, and more resources for companies to take on R&D so they can innovate are needed.

Reducing Inequality

The SDG of reducing inequality is to promote economic growth and provide universal social protection. Reducing inequality is a goal in itself, but the main reasons for it are to reduce poverty, raise the living standards of the poorest, and ensure that economic growth benefits everyone.

Sustainable Cities and Communities

The demand for urban housing and the consequent rapid growth of slum areas are major challenges for many countries. Around the world, over 1 billion people live in slums. The number of people living in slums is predicted to increase significantly by 2030 unless corrective action is taken.

Responsible Consumption and Production

This goal is to ensure that economic activities do not harm the environment, natural resources, cultural heritage, or human health. It is important to take into account the whole life cycle of an object when designing new products and materials, and to be aware of the environmental and human health risks that come with manufacture and disposal.

Climate Action

The UN Sustainable Development Goal of "climate action" is to take urgent action to limit the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that go into the atmosphere. One way to do this is to make a deliberate effort to increase the use of renewable energy sources, while also decreasing energy consumption.

Life Below Water

This goal aims to protect the biodiversity and ecosystems of the marine environment. It also aims to increase the resilience of coastal communities to the effects of climate change and to reduce the impact of excess nutrients and organic matter on marine ecosystems.

Life on Land

This goal is to protect the planet's biodiversity, combat desertification and halt and reverse land degradation, promote sustainable forest management, and halt and reverse the loss of biodiversity.

Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions

The UN Sustainable Development Goal of peace, justice, and strong institutions aims to promote peaceful and just societies around the world while reducing corruption and improving the rule of law. The United Nations wants to make sure that all people in the world enjoy the same rights and opportunities in order to achieve the goal of peace.

Partnerships for the Goals

Partnerships between governments, civil society, and private companies are critical to achieving the SDGs. No group can achieve these goals alone, and it will take a massive, global, collaborative effort to make serious progress.

What challenges do the UN SDGs pose?

One of the most challenging aspects of the SDGs is their broad scope and interconnected nature. The goals are interdependent with each other, meaning that achieving one goal will require working on multiple other goals at the same time. 

This makes it difficult for governments, businesses, NGOs, or individuals to work on a single goal at a time, to be achieved alone. However, these difficulties also create new opportunities for innovation in order to overcome major obstacles such as poverty and climate change.

Three pillars of sustainable development

Sustainable development is not a new concept. Even in Ancient Rome, the notion of sustainability permeated society and was exercised in its environment. 

However, sustainable development has only more recently become a topic of grave concern. Until the Industrial Revolution of the late 1700s, environmental changes were mostly due to natural causes, such as volcanic eruptions.

Today, unsustainable practices are causing runaway climate change, which is already linked to 5 million deaths per year from extreme weather alone. And that’s not even counting the nearly 10 million deaths per year from pollution. By 2050, it’s estimated that there will be 1 billion climate refugees.

"Smog over Sao Paulo" by Thomas Locke Hobbs is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

To mitigate these catastrophes, humanity needs to address the three pillars of sustainable development: Social, environmental, and economic. 

Without social equity for all members of social groups; without proactively protecting our natural resources; without sustainable economic growth for all citizens; it would be impossible to achieve long-term ecological balance on this planet.

What is AI?

Artificial intelligence is any software that possesses at least one of the following: perception, decision-making, prediction, automatic knowledge extraction and pattern recognition from data, interactive communication, logical reasoning, or machine learning. These include more niche sub-fields like natural language processing, which is used to understand and create realistic text.

Artificial intelligence is becoming increasingly accessible with no-code tools such as Akkio to handle tasks that would otherwise require a highly-specialized AI engineering professional.

With tools like these, AI has become prevalent in almost every industry, from manufacturing to healthcare. 

Why, in general, can AI help meet the SDGs?

Our earth is degrading at a faster rate than anticipated, and countries are scrambling to come up with solutions for sustainable living. Fueling this dilemma is fear that there will not be enough jobs to go around due to technological advancements in automation. 

What we need more than anything else is a solution that helps balance the economy and sustainability. 

AI can help meet the SDGs because it augments, rather than replaces, our own intelligence and capabilities. Any actions humans take to achieve the SDGs can be augmented with artificial intelligence.

In what specific ways can AI help meet the SDGs?

Sustainable Development Goals are ambitious global goals. But, how can Artificial Intelligence help meet them?

Societal outcomes

A new study published in Nature shows that around 82% of the SDG’s societal outcome metrics could be potentially improved by AI-based technologies, including SDG 1 on poverty, SDG 4 on quality education, SDG 6 on clean water and sanitation, SDG 7 on affordable and clean energy, and SDG 11 on sustainable cities.

Decreasing carbon

For example, using interconnected technologies such as electrical autonomous vehicles and smart appliances with demand-response AI can help improve gas emissions in cities and reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

AI is being used in a host of other areas as well, such as smart traffic lights that reduce traffic time and idling, smart cooling systems that reduce energy usage in data centers, and AI-designed aircraft parts that reduce carbon by being up to 40% lighter.

Thus, AI can drive the transition to a zero-carbon economy, particularly in the smart cities of the future.

AI will also increase agricultural efficiency. Using predictive analytics, farmers can use the right amount of fertilizers and water resources to produce the highest yield. Risk can also be minimized by analyzing weather data, pests, and extreme weather events.

Traditionally, agriculture is a huge source of carbon emissions, which makes AI a powerful tool in the fight against carbon.

Fighting poverty

Using pattern recognition algorithms from satellite images, some international organizations are now better able to detect high levels of poverty at a quick glance across expanding cities and rural landscapes alike, which is key to tracking progress for the UN’s “no poverty” goal.

For example, Stanford's sustainability and AI lab combines high-resolution satellite imagery with powerful machine learning algorithms to find how rich or poor specific locations are.

They combine daytime and nighttime information, and AI automatically detects features like roads, farmlands, urban areas, and waterways. Patterns in these features are used to find correlations among poor areas, particularly those in need of help due to natural disasters.

"Kalutara Beach after tsunami" by Bernie Goldbach is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Improving fraud detection 

Fraud is a tremendous issue these days, and manual fraud detection is less effective than ever, given the size and volume of financial data today. The SDG goal 16 relates to justice and effective, accountable institutions, which means minimizing fraud at all levels. 

With tools such as Akkio's fraud detection, any agency or business can effortlessly pinpoint fraud.

Assessing the impacts of legislation

The way the UN SDGs are achieved will depend, in large part, on public policy decisions. 

One of the most promising applications for AI is in assessing the impact of legislative proposals in order to inform decision-making. By analyzing economic, social, and environmental data, AI can provide a quantitative analysis of a policy’s effects across different sectors, and make predictions about its future implications.

Economic outcomes

The same Nature study has found that AI technologies have the potential to positively affect 70% of economic outcomes in relation to the SDGs.

Improving economic efficiencies

AI is used in many industries to either automate various tasks or provide analysis on what the future might look like. 

Recently, AI has been sought out by the food industry to increase efficiencies in meeting food needs. As reported by Microsoft, AI can be used to increase the agricultural productivity of land by up to 70%.

Furthermore, these algorithms can also be used in real-time forecasting commodity prices and market trajectory to meet demand more efficiently than ever before. 

With Akkio's AI forecasting tools, businesses from agriculture to manufacturing can easily plan ahead and more efficiently meet demand.

Job creation

Moreover, a study by the World Economic Forum  showed that artificial intelligence-empowered robots could also help offset labor shortages in certain intensive sectors such as construction, mining, or agriculture, allowing humans to work on more fulfilling, complex, or creative work.

In fact, the WEF estimates that AI will result in a net increase of 58 million jobs. However, as the European Union’s European Commission statistics indicate, we’re far from a consensus on how AI will impact job creation or job loss.

Environmental outcomes

AI is a powerful tool that can help governments, businesses, and NGOs work on their respective goals more efficiently, and can help them achieve these goals for a lower cost. In fact, AI could help us meet 93% of the environmental SDG outcomes.

Environmental preservation

An article from the Stanford Social Innovation Review refers to the application of AI to solve social and ecological challenges as “mission-driven artificial intelligence.”

For instance, AI could be used to analyze the spread of invasive species and then work with governments to implement regulations. This would take a burden off countries such as New Zealand, which spends millions of dollars each year on eradicating invasive species. 

Another example is how AI can help with monitoring illegal fishing. Thanks to technology like satellite imaging and drone surveillance, it has become easier for authorities to enforce laws against illegal fishing. 

The same technique can be applied to monitor illegal logging. One major hurdle is that there are not enough people to monitor all of these resources manually, so applying AI could be a powerful solution.

"Cloud Free View of the Amazon" by NASA Goddard Photo and Video is licensed under CC2.0

AI can also be applied to help monitor natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis. According to a research paper published in Springer, AI technology can even be used alongside information like GPS and weather data to better predict landslides.

Understanding climate change

In the context of climate change, AI can be used to track changes in atmospheric conditions over time, and build models of different climate scenarios.

The use of AI tools will enable people to understand the implications of climate change better than they have been able to before. Researchers at Yale, for instance, are using AI to build climate models with unparalleled foresight, including accurately predicting details like extreme rainfall.

NASA teams are also working on high-accuracy AI models that can predict flood risks, risks of extreme heat, crop yields, and other climate impacts.

Supporting low-carbon systems

Achieving goals such as renewable energy integration, low-carbon energy systems, and energy efficiency are all required to address climate change. 

AI is already being used in these areas, with IBM  using AI to increase renewable energy production by predicting when to switch on solar power plants or wind turbines. 

AI has also been used to reduce carbon emissions from power plants through  predictive analytics from General Electric. There are innumerable other case studies of “AI for good,” from the private sector to government initiatives. 

Could AI hinder SDGs?

Concerns regarding AI are not unfounded. The same research found that they could potentially have a negative impact on 35% of the SDGs, due to challenges such as AI’s energy footprint, biased AI, and the potential to worsen income inequality.

Therefore it's crucial for policymakers to consider how AI will be deployed when thinking about how to achieve the SDGs.

Energy Footprint

AI, and in particular deep learning, can have a high carbon footprint, thanks to the intense computational resources involved. SDG 7 calls for affordable and clean energy, while SDG 12 calls for climate action, which makes traditional AI model training incompatible with achieving the SDGs.

However, not all AI is the same. For instance, Akkio’s training times are around 100x faster than competitors, and therefore far more energy-efficient. As technology improves, so will our ability to train AI models faster and more efficiently than ever before.

Biased AI

As AI technology becomes more advanced, the amount of data collected will also grow exponentially. 

This will allow for much more accurate and complete analyses to take place - but it also means that businesses may be compromising privacy even more than they already are, with the digital traces of our lives being increasingly tracked, sorted, and used for purposes that may not be in our best interest. 

It is important to keep this in mind when looking at how AI could affect regions where ethical scrutiny, transparency, and democratic control are lacking. 

There are already cases of AI software being trained on big data with inherent biases and making wrong decisions, such as Amazon’s sexist recruiting algorithm, Google’s racist facial recognition algorithm, or Facebook’s problematic AI-powered censorship.

AI is just one part of your business’s overall strategy - it can solve repetitive tasks, and even complex problems, but still requires oversight, business knowledge, and good decision making on your part for it to be used in a just and equitable way.

Income Inequality

While AI is expected to lead to long-term job growth, automation-driven job losses can be expected in the short term.

AI could also increase income disparity. It’s expected that AI will make the world “phenomenally wealthy,” but only if that wealth is equitably distributed. In a worst-case scenario, large corporations will hoard the $15 trillion in wealth that AI is expected to generate by 2030. 

Even if great pains are made to distribute the benefits of AI, a large chunk of wealth created is likely to remain in the hands of highly-educated computer science elites. In other words, AI can produce substantial benefits, but if no other steps are taken, they are likely to be unevenly distributed. 

Making sure the benefits of AI are shared is important. Akkio is designed to make AI solutions accessible to everyone.

Conclusion

The future of AI is bright, with many possibilities for making a positive impact on society. 

Transparency and consent are key to ensuring that human rights such as privacy are maintained, and to ensure the ethical implementation of algorithms that affect our lives. 

Finally, AI must be developed in such a way that it doesn't contribute to environmental harm, such as with more efficient training methods.

Whether you're using AI to improve supply chain management, prevent financial fraud, or reduce healthcare attrition, try Akkio and see how easy it can be to contribute to the UN SDGs.

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