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Artificial intelligence (AI) can be a force for good — or so asserts Xprize, a nonprofit organization that aims to spark projects that “solve societal grand challenges.” At the NeurIPS 2018 conference in Montreal, Xprize provided an update on its four-year effort to develop scalable AI technologies that address some of the world’s most difficult problems.

“What is it we can use AI for?” Amir Banifatemi, general manager of innovation and growth at Xprize, asked the audience assembled at Sunday morning’s talk. “[Entrants] are focusing on sustainable development goals … [and] using [a common] framework of thinking [to] solve these problems.”

Xprize’s framework of choice is SDG, or sustainable growth goals, a collection of 17 global goals set by the United Nations General Assembly 2015. They’re universal calls to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure peace and prosperity, and they incorporate such lofty goals as universal clean water and sanitation and the eradication of poverty.

There’s a substantial market for SDGs, Banifatemi pointed out. A 2017 report by the Business & Sustainable Development Comission revealed that sustainable and inclusive strategies in the energy, cities, food and agriculture, and health care sectors could create “at least” $12 trillion in value, and potentially an additional $8 trillion if those strategies embedded SDGs.


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“If this market is big enough, how do we incentivize the application of AI for SDGs?” Banifatemi asked.

There’s been encouraging progress in recent years. Xprize’s AI competition, which attracted sponsorship from IBM’s Watson group, received 10,000 submissions from 147 teams in May 2016. The selection committee of 30 judges whittled that number down to 59 teams in December 2017, and then to 30 teams from eight countries — Australia, Canada, France, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States — in November 2018.

The top 10 competitors will showcase their technologies in front of a live audience and judging panel this week at Concordia University in Montreal, where they’ll compete for a $35,000 first place prize, as well as a $20,000 second place prize and a $5,000 people’s choice award.

Sean McGregor, technical lead for the AI Xprize and a member of the technical staff at Irvine, California-based AI-at-the-edge computing startup Syntiant, highlighted two of the 10 finalists: Zzapp Malaria and Behaivior.

Zzapp Malaria aims to apply AI to treatment coordination in disease-struck communities, in part by analyzing datasets and satellite data to inform strategies for communities based on environmental and other conditions.

Behaivior’s tackling the problem of opioid addiction, which caused 42,000 deaths in 2016. Its AI system combines data from wearables and smartphones into an early warning system that predicts and prevents addiction relapses and overdoses.

Here are the other eight startups that’ll be contending for a top slot later this week:

  • Aifred health: Developing a system that uses high-quality data about mental health to help physicians choose personalized treatments for patients with depression.
  • Amiko AI: Developing a system that enables real-time monitoring of medication use and patient health to assist health care professionals and empower asthma patients to achieve better outcomes.
  • Choosito!: A smart search engine tool powered by artificial intelligence that automates how people index, analyze, search, and deliver personalized digital content.
  • Deep Drug: Developing a drug design software that learns from the successes and failures of previous clinical trials to shorten the developmental timeline of new drugs.
  • emPrize: Developing virtual tutors for online education that will offer learning assistance through personalized tutoring — answering questions and providing feedback.
  • InnoVie Health: Helping resource-strained hospitals optimize their services to give better quality care.
  • Machine Genes: Helping people with type 1 diabetes, including those with “brittle” diabetes, using evolutionary machine learning and advanced AI to recommend the best insulin dosage and to keep each individual patient’s blood glucose levels under control with unprecedented stability and safety.
  • Nectar: Using analytics to help beekeepers perform their jobs and minimize the loss of colonies.

The first prize for AI Xprize is $5 million, with the grand prize and third place winners receiving $1 million and $500,000, respectively. Three lucky finalists will participate in the Grand Prize competition on the TED2020 stage in front of a live in-person and online audience.

“This competition has made it evident that the teams’ efforts to apply AI for Good not only started the trend, but created a global movement,”  Banifatemi said. “We’re proud to see humans rallying together to build responsible and useful AI that will solve some of the grandest challenges of our time.”

Xprize was founded in 1994 and has designed and launched 17 prizes in the domains of space, oceans, learning, health, energy, and the environment. To date, it has launched over $140 million in prize purses, including the $15 million Global Learning Xprize, the $10 million Qualcomm Tricorder Xprize, and the $7 million Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy Xprize.

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