Using AI to help achieve Sustainable Development Goals

Michael Chui, Rita Chung and Ashley van Heteren

Artificial Intelligence is frequently in the headlines these days, sometimes portrayed in apocalyptic terms as the technology that will take over our jobs or even our lives. But what if it could also become a valuable tool in the worldwide efforts to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals?

Already, AI capabilities are being used in various ways to further societal goals. After the passage of Hurricane Harvey in 2017, many streets in downtown Houston were flooded and impassible—but others weren’t. An AI application that combined satellite imagery with object detection software enabled rescue workers to identify safe escape routes for those trapped by the rising waters.

AI-powered object detection is also at the core of a new application that could bring relief to the estimated 250 million people worldwide who are visually impaired, most of whom live in developing countries. The free Microsoft app, which works through a smartphone, uses AI to recognize friends and describe people and specific objects such as currency bills.

These are just two cases of AI being used for social good—and it’s just the start. We at McKinsey Global Institute have collected about 160 cases of AI’s actual or potential uses for noncommercial benefit of society, and can see considerable potential for computer vision, natural language processing, even deep learning applied to traditional databases, as well as other AI capabilities, to make a very sizeable difference.