Innovating with Purpose: Rethinking the True Meaning and Execution of AI for Good Initiatives

Emerging Technologies and Edtech August 28, 2023

Thirteen years ago, Simon Sinek delivered a compelling TedTalk titled “Start with Why,” where he emphasized that exceptional leaders and organizations prioritize the ‘Why’ behind their actions rather than the ‘What’ and the ‘How’. He exemplified this principle by referencing noteworthy individuals such as Martin Luther King Jr. and the Wright Brothers and Apple, a trailblazer in the tech industry – all of whom have achieved remarkable results and impact by clearly defining their ‘Why’.

Adapted from “Golden Circle model: Simon Sinek’s theory of value proposition ‘start with why” (2022)

Fast forward to today, in a world where AI is rapidly evolving and organizations are increasingly using the hashtag #AIforgood, Sinek’s ideology holds more relevant than ever. AI is undoubtedly a transformative technology, holding immense potential to drive positive change across various domains. Yet, it is crucial to approach the quest to implement “AI for Good” initiatives with a well-defined reason to avoid potential harms and challenges. This will allow for the:

1. Decrease of Power Imbalances

Many AI for good projects are directed towards communities that face various challenges and are often employed to improve the lives of vulnerable and marginalized populations, underserved communities, low-income groups, or those affected by environmental or humanitarian crises. If AI for good initiatives are not carefully examined for potential biases or discriminatory outcomes, they may inadvertently reinforce existing power imbalances and inequities in society. Just as Sinek highlights in his philosophy, the essence of AI for good lies in understanding the “why” behind these initiatives. Justice,fairness, and privacy protection are non-negotiable elements that demand careful consideration.

2. Prevention of Ethical Washing

We must be cautious of ethical washing, including profit-driven motives presented as altruistic, while prioritizing financial gains at the expense of vulnerable communities. While there is nothing inherently wrong with pursuing profits, the true “why” – the genuine intention to create a positive impact – must always take precedence. A purpose-driven approach to AI for good demands transparency, honesty, and a genuine commitment to positive change. By centering the “why” in decision-making, organizations can ensure that their AI initiatives align with their stated goals and actually contribute to the betterment of society.

3. Emphasis on Accountability

Anticipating the future, organizations might find it convenient to  claim that their AI initiatives had altruistic intentions all along, should these initiatives encounter adverse outcomes, undesirable results, or unintended consequences. This possibility highlights the importance of not only starting with a clear “why” for AI for good projects but also ensuring continuous scrutiny and responsibility of their development and implementation. Additionally, accountability ensures systematic identification and rectification of errors in AI systems. When organizations and their teams are held accountable for the performance of their AI technologies, they are motivated to proactively monitor and assess their systems for any potential flaws or inaccuracies, and they are more likely to implement robust feedback loops and error reporting mechanisms.

4. Informed Techno-optimism

Techno-optimism embodies an unwavering belief in technology’s potential to address societal challenges and enhance human life. While this perspective drives innovation and progress, it also comes with the risk of blind trust in AI solutions, neglecting their limitations and unintended consequences. In AI for good initiatives, organizations must transparently acknowledge potential shortcomings and uncertainties. By anchoring these efforts in a clear “why,” they can avoid overestimating AI’s capabilities and adopt an ethical, measured approach to harness its transformative potential. Sharing the risks and challenges publicly fosters trust with users and stakeholders, ensuring responsible development and positive societal impact.

Ultimately, the “Start with Why” approach is a powerful tool for organizations to avoid empty claims and ensure responsible AI development. Embracing this philosophy not only holds organizations accountable, but also paves the way for AI for good initiatives that genuinely drive positive change, inspire public trust, and make a lasting difference in the lives of people and communities. It is also important to recognize that AI, when developed and deployed responsibly, can indeed be a powerful tool for positive change. The key lies in striking a balance between optimism and critical evaluation. By embracing a realistic and thoughtful approach to AI, we are empowered  to capitalize on its strengths, while proactively addressing its challenges.