Feature Story

How AI is powering a new wave of activism

by Melissa Jun Rowley

How AI is powering a new wave of activism

See how AI is becoming more vital and applicable to social issues.

Paul Duan was working as a data scientist at Eventbrite in San Francisco by day, and volunteering at homeless shelters and soup kitchens by night. He realized one day that he wanted to use AI to help unemployed people find jobs—a core mission of his Paris, France-based nonprofit Bayes Impact. Bayes Impact uses data to build social services fit for a better future.

"When you work at a soup kitchen, you serve a soup one by one to each individual, and it feels great," says Duan, "But then it gets really sad because you see that there are 50 people in line behind the person, and you know that behind the closed door of the shelter you have 10,000 more on the streets. So the one question that came to mind was, ‘how can we impact people at the biggest scale?'" 

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Through harnessing artificial intelligence, Duan is answering his own question. As the world enters the fourth industrial revolution, AI is becoming more vital and applicable to social issues. This is true especially in alleviating unemployment and providing legal services for people in need.

In France, about 10 percent of the population and 25 percent of its youth are unemployed. So last year, Bayes Impact launched a free, open-source intelligent application that empowers jobseekers by helping them find their optimal strategies and navigate the job search maze.

"We built an application that provides an AI coach for unemployed people," says Duan, "What we realized when working with the unemployed is that what really mattered was to provide individual coaching and help people. Providing personalized coaching can help people improve their job search strategy figure out their choices."

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So far, the project has helped 150,000 people find jobs. The team at Bayes Impact plans to see how they can help 1 million to 10 million people over the next few years. The organization is currently looking into replicating the project in countries outside of France.

"We ask them a couple of questions, and based on that, we give them a personalized assessment of the job market, their strengths and their weaknesses. Then we give them personalized advice as to how they can improve their chances," explains Duan, "All of that is automated. Basically, the idea here is that if you really want to help people get out of unemployment, what really matters is providing personalized coaching that can scale to hundreds of thousands or millions of people. Manual is extremely cost prohibitive and expensive. This is one area where AI can really shine in a data-driven way."

Automating the law

While Duan is using AI to coach unemployed people into getting jobs, Joshua Browder is building out his AI-powered DoNotPay platform to help people in different way. What started as a side project to help his family members and friends get out of parking tickets has helped over 500,000 people access legal services, fight for consumer rights, sue companies for breaching their data, and seek political asylum. Browder says the DoNotPay app has saved people an estimated $16 million. 

"Unfortunately, the primary use of AI at the moment is to solve problems that help corporations—not consumers," says Browder, "For example, ‘how can we sell more flowers on Amazon,' or get people to ‘upload more baby photos on Facebook'. AI has amazing potential and it's always refreshing to see it being used to make expensive services free, rather than to sell more goods online."

While DoNotPay still has a long way to go before it makes the $450 billion legal industry free for everyone, Browder is launching a dozen more services that he's been working on for the past year. One will allow people to sue anyone, including large entities, in small claims court for under $10,000 automatically.

What does the future hold for AI-driven activism?

"In the future, AI will make basic services free for the most vulnerable in society," says Browder, "Before DoNotPay, the government was terrible at dealing with homelessness and parking, but a bot has done a considerable amount to change that. Luckily, AI-powered bots don't require a salary, so they can be replicated until they serve everyone that needs help in a given area. Many of the problems in society, I think, come down to limited resources. AI can give people access to new services and experiences that will improve their lives. I hope to play a small part of that trend by focusing on making the law free."

As much as Duan is a champion for using AI to scale social impact, he says the human touch is still crucial.

"While AI does have a tremendous ability to fuel change, you also cannot have just a purely technical approach in mind," he says, "You can't just think, ‘because I know how to code I'm going to solve every single problem in the world in the span of a hackathon.' This is really about how you integrate the human mind, and deeply understand the human systems around you that enable you to have an actual impact."

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