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People use artificial intelligence (AI) every day to help make decisions, solve problems and automate tasks. As with any widely adopted technology — especially one as powerful and potentially pervasive as AI — the rewards come with risk. AI can reinforce structural inequalities and bias, perpetuate gender imbalances, threaten jobs and facilitate oppressive government surveillance. 

IDRC: a leader in AI   

IDRC is a leading supporter of AI research and innovation to advance international development goals. We support research in the Global South around the concept of responsible AI: the practice of designing, developing and deploying AI systems that are ethical, inclusive and sustainable.  

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In 2017, Canada became a leader in AI as the first country to announce a national strategy, the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy. IDRC followed suit in 2018, producing the Centre’s white paper on Artificial intelligence and human development. That paper provided the basis for much of IDRC’s AI research programming as it expanded into sectors like health and feminist AI. 

AI for Development Program

Fast forward to today and IDRC supports a cohesive ecosystem of AI researchers and innovators from across the Global South. Our research partners are exploring how to harness AI to address poverty and exclusion, improve food and health systems, confront the challenges of climate change and make education more inclusive. 

In 2023, IDRC partnered with the United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to launch the Artificial Intelligence for Development program, which coordinates our programming and maximizes the potential for impact. This is an overview of that programming.

Artificial Intelligence for Development Africa (AI4D Africa) is central to IDRC’s AI for Development ecosystem. The CAD20 million partnership with the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) program is designed to promote the use of responsible AI to address problems and improve lives in Africa by collaborating with AI practitioner, science and policy communities across 19 countries. Together they are developing, testing and scaling innovations, fostering African talent and supporting policy development to promote the inclusive benefits of AI, and sharing their learnings.

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June 2023: The AfricAI conference, organized by IDRC, the German Development Agency (GIZ) and Niyel, brought together more than 270 experts, researchers, industry leaders, donors and policymakers.

AI has the power to improve health systems worldwide, but comes with risky social implications, especially for vulnerable populations like women. That is why the Artificial Intelligence for Global Health (AI4GH) initiative is such a key component of the AI for Development program at IDRC.  

The CAD15.5 million investment launched in 2022 represents networks of researchers, policymakers, practitioners, the private sector and civil society. Together, they are working on responsible AI solutions to healthcare challenges in low- and middle-income countries in three key areas:  

  • epidemic and pandemic prevention, preparedness and response 
  • AI innovation research networks on sexual and reproductive health in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and Latin America  
  • the role of the private sector in AI and health innovation in Africa, Latin America and Asia.  

AI4GH builds on the Global South AI4COVID Response partnership with Sida. AI4COVID research led to evidence-informed COVID responses in several countries, including the development of official dashboards viewed by thousands of people every day in sub-Saharan Africa, recommendations on the return to school in Colombia and contributions to the WHO guidelines on the ethics and governance of AI for health.    

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July 2023: AI4GH research partners discuss the responsible development and deployment of AI innovations for advancing maternal, sexual and reproductive health and rights at the Women Deliver conference.

The Global Index on Responsible AI, co-funded by Global Affairs Canada, aims to measure and bolster the capacity of governments, civil society organizations and other stakeholders to uphold responsible AI principles by benchmarking their progress over time. The Global Index is a collaboration with Research ICT Africa and the Data for Development Network. It is expected to be published in 2024. 

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Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
AI Index Principal Investigator Rachel Adams on a panel with Bill Gates and other AI leaders at the Challenges Meeting in 2023 

Feminist AI: Advancing gender equality and inclusion in AI research was established in 2021. This CAD2 million project has two main goals: to improve how AI can address social and economic barriers faced by women and marginalized communities and to correct historic exclusion and bias that currently exists in AI systems. The Feminist AI Network (FAIR) supports research hubs and projects across Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and Latin America, and coordinates with AI4D Africa. Advancing feminist thinking in AI spaces and platforms has the potential to be transformative and is therefore a critical part of IDRC’s AI programming. 

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IDRC and research partners at panel on AI and reducing gender-based inequalities at the 2023 Conference of Montreal.

Lacuna Fund is the world’s first collaborative effort to provide data scientists, researchers and social entrepreneurs in low- and middle-income contexts globally with the resources they need to produce labeled data sets that address urgent problems in their communities. IDRC co-funded this work with and the Rockefeller Foundation

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Working for the future

The emergence of new large language models such as ChatGPT make this work even more urgent. For AI to bring developmental benefits, it is critical that sufficient local capacity, infrastructure and evidence be in place to inform government strategy and policy.  

IDRC is part of a group of funders from the public and private sectors supporting AI research and innovation in the Global South that can adapt to new and potentially even more disruptive AI applications in the future. The time to write the future of AI in low- and middle-income countries is now, as policies and practices put in place today will shape the benefits and harms of AI in the decades to come. Research can help. 

Results and insights

Top image: iStock