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Doing Good with AI and Big Data

What does ethical artificial intelligence (AI) look like? It’s a question that Dr. Richard Benjamins is well-placed to answer. As chief AI and data strategist for Telefónica, Benjamins is responsible for establishing the telecom giant’s ground-breaking Big Data for Social Good department. His resume also includes a PhD in cognitive science, a position on an expert group within the European Commission, and two books, “The Myth of the Algorithm” and the recently published, “A Data Driven Company.” Not surprisingly, he represented an ideal guest for Altair’s Future Says series of interviews with thought (and action) leaders from the worlds of AI and data science.  

Benjamins is certainly a powerful advocate of AI as a force for good. Particularly high on his list of priorities is the need for data sharing between stakeholders. During the pandemic, mobility data from operators such as Telefónica has provided governments with precious insight into transmission of the COVID-19 virus and the effectiveness of lockdowns. But, as Benjamins explains, such data would prove just as valuable to organizations responsible for addressing humanitarian disasters and challenges such as earthquakes, flooding, and child poverty. 

So, what’s preventing the wider use of AI for good? As Benjamins asserts, there is no shortage of successful pilot projects. The problem now is a lack of investment by governments and other public bodies. Leveraging AI and big data would undoubtedly support better decision making; leaders need to recognize the benefits and start deploying at scale. 

There are, he believes, grounds for optimism. COVID-19 has proved a massive wake-up call in terms of the need for data-driven policies. Looking beyond the pandemic, climate change stands out as another critical challenge facing humanity where the full potential of AI and data science can and should be harnessed. 

As with other guests in the Future Says series, Benjamins shares interesting thoughts on the public’s love-hate relationship with AI. Many of the scare stories associated with the technology are based on a tendency to attribute it with qualities it simply doesn’t possess. Despite the name, we need to remember that AI is not intelligent in the way that a human is.

For those concerned about AI’s potential to take over our jobs in the not-too-distant future, Benjamins offers considered guidance on the types of roles that are within its reach. Again, this is based on an informed and rational assessment of the applications in which AI can thrive, and those where its value is far more limited. And there are encouraging words for anyone considering a career in data science itself. This fast-evolving field will require a broad skillset, encompassing creativity and domain expertise as much as technical know-how. In fact, Benjamins believes that organizations should look to create teams that bring together the necessary attributes. Individuals who possess them all are likely to be few and far between.

Alongside his thoughts on ethical use of AI in the wider world, Benjamins has valuable advice for businesses seeking a return on investment in the commercial domain. The worst reason for pursuing AI is because everyone else is. Another common mistake is making it far more complex than it needs to be.

Finally, Benjamins makes a compelling case for enterprises to treat data as an asset, not an ‘exhaust’ generated by other activities. Putting it in the corporate strategic plan is a crucial first step that Telefónica took in 2012. If this interview tells us anything, it is that Benjamins plays a key role in ensuring that Telefónica remains a pioneer, not just in the use of AI and big data for commercial gain, but as tools for the benefit of society as a whole. 

You can watch the whole interview with Benjamins here. Don’t miss series two which starts in September 2021. Register for updates here