Artificial Intelligence

During times of crisis, how AI and automation can be a force for good

Automation has helped those internally displaced during the Ukraine crisis.

Automation has helped those internally displaced during the Ukraine crisis. Image: Unsplash/Claudio Schwarz

Neeti Mehta Shukla
Co-Founder and Social Impact Officer, Automation Anywhere
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Artificial Intelligence

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • As predictions stand, the impact of global challenges and crises will only worsen, placing pressure on managing responses beyond current human capability.
  • Artificial intelligence (AI) and automation promise to facilitate and accelerate support during a crisis.
  • Two case studies in the wake of the COVID-19 and Ukraine crises show how AI and automation have been catalysts for positive change.

The world is experiencing unprecedented change, innovation and crisis. Political, economic and humanitarian repercussions follow major events, such as the Ukraine and Israel-Gaza crises, the pandemic and accelerating climate change.

If these emergencies indicate what is to come, we must proactively prepare for the next superhuman response to future catastrophes. That is where artificial intelligence (AI) and technology can help.

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Changing migratory flows

Futurists warn that decades from now, the effects of war and climate change and resulting economic shifts will be exponentially greater than the present. Research by the Brookings Institution forecasts that three regions will generate 143 million more migrants by 2050 from climate change alone, impacting the lives of millions and continuing to drive massive waves of human migration and a host of global issues.

Each wave will bring critical challenges that affect how billions of people survive and work together. Social organizations, nonprofits, and governments working at the epicentres of crises are already being taxed like never before. They will need to prepare for increased demand for capacity and types of services to help people everywhere.

AI and automation are becoming essential to navigate the crises of today and the future, as they will help determine what’s possible. As the corporate world uses AI to remap the landscape of products and solutions, the nonprofit sector can apply the same technology to meet the ever-increasing demand for services.

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For instance, rising sea levels from climate change will cause a ripple effect of other future disasters, including threatening the very existence of cities and some island nations, food insecurity, and major ecosystem disruptions. How do we prepare for tens of millions of climate refugees created by the loss of habitable coastal land? AI-driven technologies are already predicting rising sea levels, increasing the efficiency of renewable sources and bolstering preparedness for natural disasters.

What if nonprofits everywhere had a set of AI-based technological resources in their toolkit to quickly develop and offer new services that meet the urgent challenges of today and prepare for future crises?

Here are case studies from the recent past that have showcased its potential:

Intelligent humanitarian relief is possible

Almost 18 million people in Ukraine need humanitarian assistance. Local non-government organizations, such as Step with Hope, with hundreds of volunteers in 19 centres across eastern Ukraine, ensure that many internally displaced people fleeing combat receive desperately needed aid. At one time during the onset of the conflict, the agency’s volunteers answered phone-in requests from about 1,600 families for food, bedding, lodging, hygiene, and emotional support while taking manual notes.

As the war escalated, internally displaced people struggled to get through for phone help and the agency had about 1,500 backlogged requests awaiting review each day. Step with Hope grappled with balancing its standard of personalized care for internally displaced people, scaling to meet the growing need for relief and protecting volunteers from burnout.

Over four weeks, Automation Anywhere, the Centre for Humanitarian Technology and several cross-sector partners stepped forward to create automation solutions that relieved staff and volunteers from energy-draining, time-consuming, repetitive tasks, including manual information collection, registration and reporting. This undertaking allowed the reallocation of 400 hours in the first six weeks to support internally displaced people through work requiring human touch, such as personalized assessment and support.

The automation solutions responded to 400% more asks from internally displaced people and processed 17,500 requests from more than 14,000 Ukrainians. At peak request times, the bot handled up to five times the average daily requests with no decrease in productivity. Automation technology supported Step with Hope during an acute time of need and provided them with a new way of working in preparation for the future.

Automation for good outcomes after the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine.
Automation for good outcomes after the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine. Image: Centre for Humanitarian Technology, Automation Anywhere

Time saved equals lives saved

As COVID-19 patient numbers spiked in UK hospitals, ensuring the oxygen supply for ventilators became extremely critical. The new protocol was to check the hospital’s oxygen supply and collect and record readings every hour instead of every six. Overburdened staff caring for very ill patients now had one more stressor added to an impossible workload.

In response, the National Health Service (NHS) IT staff built a 100% accurate, 24-seven reliable “Oxygen Bot” that improved clinical safety, giving back more than 1,500 hours a year to clinical staff. The success of this bot proved to NHS leaders that innovation should never stop during a crisis—and gave them the confidence to build hundreds of automation across dozens of organizations in key areas throughout the pandemic.

For example, a single bot to streamline invoice processing has led to cumulative net benefits of £1,970,842 by the third year. If the current adoption rate continues, the NHS estimates that automation could save almost 580,000 hours a year in non-clinical staff time by 2025 – the equivalent of 66 years.

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AI and automation have been shown to be active catalysts for positive change in response to today’s most challenging issues. There must be ongoing efforts to build this technology ethically and inclusively, with full accountability and responsible deployment, to ensure maximum benefit to humanity. With the right approach, AI and automation can become indispensable for human success in addressing future crises.

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Related topics:
Artificial IntelligenceDavos AgendaGeopolitics
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