Gates Foundation launches AI ‘Grand Challenge,’ as it weighs risk and reward in the developing world – GeekWire

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Todd Bishop
2023-05-22 08:25:53

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation headquarters in Seattle. (GeekWire File Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is offering up to $100,000 each to projects that test new ways of using AI to overcome everyday obstacles and solve seemingly intractable problems in low- and middle-income countries.

In a request for proposals, the Gates Foundation says it’s seeking “innovative and safe approaches to the use of the Large Language Model (ChatGPT-4, or other credible source with equivalent capability) to build an evidence base” in areas including health, gender equality, financial inclusion, agriculture, and education.

With a $3 million total budget, the new AI Grand Challenge is a small slice of the Gates Foundation’s $67 billion endowment. But it promises to fund dozens of grassroots AI projects, and the foundation calls it a first step.

Zameer Brey, the Gates Foundation’s head of technology diffusion.

“We are optimistic that this will lead to more investment from the Gates Foundation, [Grand Challenge] partners, and other funders to ensure that this potentially transformative technology improves the lives and conditions of the most vulnerable communities around the world,” the foundation says in its request for proposals (RFP).

Among other criteria, the RFP says the foundation is looking for proposals led by investigators in low- and middle income countries.

The turnaround is tight: applications are due at 11:30 a.m. Pacific, June 5. Grants will be awarded in July, and grantees would have three months from that point to complete their projects.

The foundation hopes to bring the project leaders together at the Grand Challenge Annual Meeting in Dakar, Oct 8-11.

Potential applications of large language models and generative AI could include advanced analysis of crop yields and nutrient deficiencies in rural agriculture, early and rapid diagnosis of disease, or ways of streamlining documentation to relieve the administrative burden on healthcare workers, among many other possibilities, said Zameer Brey, the Gates Foundation’s head of technology diffusion, in an interview.

The foundation launched its Grand Challenges in 2003, seeking to solve problems in global health and development. The approach has resulted in more than 3,600 grants in 118 countries, through the foundation and its partners.

“Having worked with many folks in these countries previously, there’s a lot of creativity, there’s a lot of energy, there’s a lot of great ideas, and sometimes providing some some level of funding gets them to surface these ideas, test them, and build out the evidence base,” Brey said.

Grand Challenge organizations in Brazil and South Africa are among those that have expressed interest in partnering with the foundation on AI and large language models.

In an essay released in conjunction with the AI Grand Challenge RFP, Gates Foundation CEO Mark Suzman cited “a widening gap between countries and communities on nearly all metrics of global development” in health equity and poverty reduction after years of progress.

Suzman cited the potential risks and benefits of AI, saying that the technology brings “the potential to fundamentally alter the way people communicate, work, learn, and improve their well-being.”

At the same time, he added, “Earlier advances in technology have delivered uneven benefits in many parts of the world for a variety of reasons, but lack of access to innovation is the primary reason people in low-resource settings often do not see benefits in a timely, fair, and consistent fashion.”

He wrote that it’s “vital to approach the potential uses of AI with care and caution, particularly from the perspective of populations who have historically been left behind in realizing the benefits of innovations.”

Suzman outlined a series of “first principles” that the foundation will follow and adapt as it expands its work in artificial intelligence. They focus on adhering to the foundation’s core values, promoting co-design and inclusivity, proceeding responsibly, addressing privacy and security, building for equitable access, and ensuring transparency.

Broader risks include the potential misuse of AI to spread misinformation.

“In the realm of health and development, where accurate and reliable information is essential, the consequences of misinformation can be particularly damaging,” he wrote. “Intentional design and collaboration with those who stand to benefit are critical to innovation having the desired impact, which we measure in lives saved and opportunities provided for people to achieve their full potential.”

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