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AI device to predict wildfires
California high-school students Sanjana Shah and Aditya Shah built a device that uses AI to identify areas in a forest that are susceptible to wildfires. (Google Photo)

Google today unveiled a $25 million initiative called the Google AI Impact Challenge, aimed at soliciting and supporting projects that make use of artificial intelligence to solve some of the world’s greatest social, humanitarian and environmental problems.

The global challenge is open to nonprofit organizations and public charities — and to for-profit businesses as well, as long as their projects have a charitable purpose.

Google’s call to humanitarian action is part of its broader “AI for Social Good” campaign, and comes just weeks after Google Cloud decided not to bid on the Pentagon’s $10 billion JEDI cloud computing project due to ethical concerns.

Microsoft, which is bidding on the contract, announced its own $40 million “AI for Humanitarian Action” initiative last month. And in the weeks before his death, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen set up a new organization called the Vulcan Machine Learning Center for Impact to support the use of machine learning for philanthropic projects.

The focus on humanitarian applications for AI comes amid concerns about the technology’s potential downside for issues ranging from data privacy and social equity to employment.

“We want people from as many backgrounds as possible to surface problems that AI can help solve, and to be empowered to create solutions themselves,” Google executives Jeff Dean and Jacquelline Fuller said in today’s announcement.

To inspire ideas, Dean and Fuller cited several examples of projects that have already received Google’s support, focusing on recognizing whale calls, improving flood warnings, identifying wildfire-prone forest areas and predicting infant health problems.

“We’ll help selected organizations bring their proposals to life with coaching from Google’s AI experts, grant funding from a $25 million pool, and credits and consulting from Google Cloud,” Dean and Fuller said. “Grantees will also join a specialized Launchpad Accelerator program, and we’ll tailor additional support to each project’s needs in collaboration with data science nonprofit DataKind.”

Application criteria, eligibility requirements, educational resources and other details are laid out on Google’s Impact Challenge website. The application deadline is Jan. 22, and grant recipients will be announced next spring.

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