Why AI Matters to the Social Sector (and How Nonprofits Can Get Ready)


In a recent New York Times article, “The Real Threat of Artificial Intelligence,” venture capitalist Kai-Fu Lee explains that artificial intelligence (AI) is destined to change the definition of work and how wealth is created, leading to unprecedented economic inequality. That’s precisely why social sector leaders should put AI on their radar. AI isn’t just an economic or technological problem, but also a social one.

Despite the magnitude of the problem (PwC estimates that 38% of US jobs could be at risk of automation by 2030), the nonprofit sector has been relatively quiet. Google.org just announced a $50 million initiative to study and prepare for the changing nature of work. Y Combinator is piloting universal basic income in Oakland, one potential solution to future high unemployment. There are others — but the crowd is relatively small and West Coast based. Comparatively, corporations and governments are much further ahead. Multinationals like GE have appointed executives to figure out this problem. Governments from Canada to Finland are also piloting universal basic income. It’s easy for nonprofit leaders to think that AI is a far off “tech problem” for the for-profit sector to figure out, but that’s a naïve belief that can have daunting repercussions.

Society is at the intersection of some disturbing economic and social trends. Technological advancement is driving large scale job displacement, as described by PwCMcKinsey, and many others, making it even harder to find an entry level job. In tandem, there is a growing preference for virtual (as opposed to real) experiences. Men aged 21–30 worked 12% fewer hours in 2015 than they did in 2000, according to a study by The National Bureau of Economics Research, with gaming being a major factor. Virtual reality is becoming more immersive with every passing day, with one man even marrying a Nintendo character. Given this backdrop, it’s no surprise that American volunteerism is at an all-time low. These somewhat interrelated trends and changing social fabric should greatly alarm non-profit leaders.

One Solution: The Robot Tax

One solution proposed by LeeBill Gates and others is some form of universal basic income paid by corporate taxes. In short, individuals displaced by AI would be compensated in exchange for doing jobs that build society — e.g., mentorship, elder care or coaching a real-life (vs. virtual) sport. Universal basic income proposals are often halted by concerns of “free riding,” as the perception of paying individuals for nothing is frowned upon in many economic and political circles. However, “the robot tax” appears be a viable lever to slow down income inequality. Nonprofits need to be at the heart of this potentially elegant solution — lobbying to invest AI-taxes in social work jobs at once delivers much needed social services, slows down inequality, and provides a living wage for those displaced by technology. One could imagine a nonprofit coalition at the center of designing and piloting what this new future might look like.

What Should Nonprofits Do About AI?

What should nonprofit leaders do to prepare themselves? Large nonprofit organizations (e.g., giants like the United Way, education systems, others) must plan for the likely impact of automation on their constituents — and, incorporate that into their strategic planning. This could result in new services, enhanced corporate partnerships, new government lobbying efforts or even the recruitment of tech savvy leadership. Just like GE, these organizations should have at least one senior leader dedicated to the future of work.

Similarly, major funders, especially those operating in the San Francisco Bay area, should follow Google.org’s example and throw themselves more deeply into the technology debate. Funders have the ability to bridge the gap between their grantees and newly formed organizations working in the space, like Singularity University. This could result in new coalitions, knowledge sharing or enhanced funding to grantees whose constituents are already being impacted.

The idea of paying displaced people to do social work is one of many interesting solutions to the future of work challenge. The robot tax and universal basic income might be just what we need to revive America’s economy and spirit of volunteerism. But even if that vision doesn’t come to pass, we need someone advocating for those most vulnerable in this new future. And that job belongs to the social sector.