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AI predicts famine to save lives — and productivity

Young Somali boys stand in line carrying metal dishes
Somali boys wait in line at a UN food distribution center in Mogadishu. Photo: Giles Clarke/Getty Images

When famine strikes, relief agencies are typically hamstrung from providing meaningful help — until the suffering attracts big cable news coverage, which then sparks sufficient donations from wealthy countries.

What's new: Leading U.S. tech companies say they have invented a system that uses artificial intelligence to forecast famine, allowing for proactive interventions before crisis strikes. This early-warning tool could prevent widespread suffering while helping developing countries prepare for a new economy in which automation has swept away low-skilled jobs.

The details: Developed by Google, Microsoft, and Amazon, the system is meant to identify signs of an impending food shortage by monitoring environmental factors like natural disasters and droughts, plus agricultural data and violent conflict.

  • It’s called the "Famine Action Mechanism," because its forecasts are tied to donation and intervention plans that are set in motion when algorithms sound the alarm.
  • The companies are working with the World Bank, the UN, and the International Committee of the Red Cross to test the system in South Sudan, Niger, Mali, Chad, and Somalia.
  • "This could actually end famines," World Bank President Jim Kim told reporters today at Stanford University. The World Bank says that 124 million people currently require food aid to survive.

Why it matters: Early action can stave off the lasting effects of famine, which — beyond causing sickness and death — can stunt a child's growth and disadvantage them for life.

  • These disadvantages will become more pronounced in the new automation-driven economy. As robots take over repetitive manual labor, workers will need to rely on cognitive skills like problem-solving and adapt quickly to new opportunities.
  • Adults who were malnourished as children will "probably be unable to adjust to these changes," Kim said.

For the 2019 World Development Report, which will be released next week, the World Bank has developed a new index measuring "human capital" — that is, people’s potential to contribute to the economy — that it says should guide developing countries through automation-driven upheaval.

  • The index combines education data with mortality and childhood stunting rates to measure how economically productive a child born this year would be by the time she turns 18, all factors remaining constant.
  • The differences in productivity between countries are stark, according to the report:
In countries with the lowest human capital investments today, our analysis suggests that the workforce of the future will only be one-third to one-half as productive as it could be if people enjoyed full health and received a high-quality education.
— Final draft of the 2019 World Development Report

"We are at a very dangerous time," said Kim. "You've got to accelerate your investments in human beings, and try to use technology to make that quicker."