AI for Peace — Interview with Branka Panic

An interview with Branka Panic, Founder and CEO of AI for Peace, a not-for-profit organisation focused on studying and understanding the impact of AI on society. Their vision is a future in which AI benefits peace, security, and sustainable development, of where diverse voices influence the creation of AI and related technologies.

Topics explored include:

  • An Introduction to AI for Peace and Their Mission
  • Why More People Should Get Involved in the AI for Good Movement
  • How Peace Is Related to Pandemics, and How AI for Peace Is Engaged in Responding to the Crisis
  • The New Exciting Projects for AI for Peace
  • Tips & Advice for Those Looking to Progress in Their Career in AI, and How to Advance Their Skills Right Now

🎧 Listen to the podcast here and read the full transcript below.

Nikita RE•WORK [0:51]

Hi Branka it’s great to have you involved in the Women in AI podcast today. So we’re recording this over zoom, as many podcasts are currently. So if you could please introduce yourself to our listeners, and also if you could share a bit more about your background prior to finding AI for Peace.

Branka [1:13]

Sure, thanks for inviting me. So my name is Branka and I’m a founder of AI for Peace and my career is probably unusual for the field of AI. I’ve been working for the previous 13 years in international development, humanitarian action, and peace building, covering conflict and post-conflict countries and humanitarian emergencies. And my educational background is in diplomacy. I have two masters, one in international security and the other in international development policy. I currently live in California but I’m originally from Balkans from Serbia and going back to my origins is probably important to understand the motivations for my current work and career path. My childhood and growing up was shaped by various wars and conflicts happening in my region. My high school days were influenced by peace resistance to authoritarian government and my first job was in democracy-building and human rights protection. So you probably wonder what AI has to do with all of this and I find it very symbolic and also motivating when I look back at my childhood and remember that during the war, and due to electricity power cuts, I had to use the light of a candle to do my homework and how I came to this point today of using AI which is often explained as new electricity, right, and now I’m using AI to create more peace.

Branka [3:05]

So when I look back, I think the tipping point in my career that streamed my work towards AI is the time when the refugee crisis started in 2015 in Europe, and I was working on humanitarian relief for refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. And we started exploring how technologies and data can help us prepare for humanitarian or disaster resilience and relief more efficiently. So this project brought me to the U.S and I worked here as a Rotary International Peace Fellow to explore intersections of machine learning and peace building. And as part of this research, I worked on validating the models for preventing and forecasting famine, designing conflict and violence early action systems through big data. I also researched the unintended consequences and ethical implications of these models, especially in conflict areas and for vulnerable populations. And from Research Triangle in North Carolina where I worked to Washington D.C and San Francisco now, one project led to another and eventually AI for Peace was created.

Nikita RE•WORK [4:36]

That is absolutely fascinating and a varied background, which has, as you said, brought to you to now, AI for Peace, which you’re the founder of. So can you share a bit more about what exactly the organization does and you have touched on, previously, why, and a bit about your background, but was there anything in particular that you wanted to really do with AI for Peace in terms of your mission?

Branka [5:04]

I like to think that AI for Peace is exponential think tank, and this is how I see it, but it is also a community of experts with AI skills, but also social scientists who are committed to using AI for creating lasting peace. And as I said, we are based in San Francisco, but we work globally and our experts are based throughout the world. And we are focused on studying and understanding the impact of AI and related technologies on society. Our vision is a future in which AI benefits peace, security, and sustainable development, and this is where our organisation is very much connected to the AI for good movement. And what is probably very connected to women in AI as well, we are very much dedicated to bringing diverse voices to the table and to this world of creating AI and related technologies. So we are preparing peace builders with these mindsets and knowledge to develop human-centered AI. And we are a global open hub for everybody, for AI researchers and data scientists, for policymakers as well, who want to understand and leverage AI’s potential and impact.

Nikita RE•WORK [6:45]

And I think that’s so important, is that making everything that you do and that community feel and making it accessible to that diverse group of voices that you said that you have at the moment. So why should some of our listeners, and anybody that really’s interested, why should they get involved in the AI for good movements? And can you share a bit more about what that is exactly?

Branka [7:10]

I should say that AI, as you said, it’s part of a broader movement of AI for good. And I would like to clarify this a bit because they often hear people in the AI field-defining AI for good through solving bias data or ensuring diversity and inclusion through diverse AI teams or data sets, which is very important but in our work, we are actually using a very specific definition of AI for good. And that is that AI is helping to solve humanity’s greatest challenges. So this concept is defined by the United Nations as a beneficial use of AI technologies to address sustainable development goals or so-called SDGs. SDGs were adopted by all 193 states in the world, and with the idea to be achieved by 2030.

Branka [8:18]

And this is a universal call to action to address humanity’s biggest problems and challenges. And some of them are ending poverty, reducing inequality, protecting the planet, creating clean and smart cities, ensuring that all people enjoy peace and prosperity in their lives. So this is why we think that it’s really important for people to get, especially people who have skills on the technology side of this world, to get engaged in the movement. Because the more people we have involved in AI for good, the more it is beneficial for the planet, but for the entire humanity, and more likely we are actually then to reach these goals by 2030.

Nikita RE•WORK [9:11]

And that links really well to the next topic I was going to ask about, and you mentioned that universal call to action which is so important and never more so than now, given the current COVID-19 pandemic. How is AI for Peace engaged in responding to this crisis and more kind of broadly looking at peace related to pandemics as well?

Branka [9:41]

Well, thanks for asking this. I think this is an excellent question and extremely important for all of us to realise that COVID-19 is not only creating health emergencies but also economic or even social ones. So this crisis brings unprecedented risks to peaceful, justice, and inclusive societies, so they are areas that AI for Peace is very much engaged in. And let me try for the listeners just to show how this is related and how the pandemic is related potentially related to peace as well. And for example, security forces enforcing the lockdown in parts of Nigeria, have killed more people than Coronavirus itself. Or let’s look at the United States, I recently read this data that while we are here really rapidly spreading coronavirus. We also purchased more guns last month than at any point since the FBI began collecting data over 20 years ago. Xenophobia is on the rise globally. Even in Australia, which is very advanced on the human rights protection level, a quarter of human rights complaints are related to COVID-19.

Branka [11:10]

So what one of the priority focus areas for AI for Peace is protecting human security, not only the survival of people from that health point of view but also protecting the livelihoods of people. So at the beginning of the crisis, we witnessed how the government started making policy decisions, enforcing lockdown rules that will not equally protect populations across the globe. And in fact, some of the measures when we look more closely at them, we realised that they can be devastating for some groups of people. So for example, social distancing will hardly work as a strategy for the impoverished. 1 billion people live in slums today, so keeping a physical distance in these circumstances is not exactly an option.

Branka [12:09]

And people living in slums often have to leave for their daily work. Sheltering in place or work from home, is again, not a strategy for them. So there is a high risk for these people to lose life to hunger before the virus itself and if you don’t inclusively respond to this pandemic, we can create new cycles of poverty and hunger and violence. And this is how the pandemic is related to peace and this is how this is related to our work as well. So to come back to your question at the beginning of this pandemic, at AI for Peace, we asked ourselves what can we do to help build our skills and knowledge. What can we do to help these populations? So we did the idea to protect the most vulnerable populations, AI for Peace partnered with Omdena, this is an organisation with expertise in using AI for good, they’re organising different data challenges, gathering expertise of data scientists. So we launched the AI Policy Challenge, with a goal to build AI models that reveal the effects of specific policy decisions being made by governments and institutions on the marginalised populations. And this is an ongoing project, it’s really an incredible collaboration of more than 70 AI and data and policy experts from 26 countries. They work on six continents online now and they’re building AI models that revealed this impact of pandemic policies on marginalised and impoverished communities. We are halfway through the challenge now and we will have the final results and recommendations at the end of May. And of course, I invite all of the listeners to follow this and read more on AI for Peace, and Omdena’s website as well.

Nikita RE•WORK [14:28]

Definitely, so at the end of the podcast we can highlight some of the different resources that our listeners can get involved in which would be fantastic. And as you touched on some of the other areas that you focus on, human security, you mentioned human rights and democracy. Are there any other exciting projects that you’re working on at the minute and that you’d like to share with us?

Branka [14:56]

Yeah, there are a lot of them. I will mention one project that is very close to my heart that I’m very much excited about. This co-operation that AI for Peace has with this organisation is based in Spain and Switzerland called SH4P, which stands for Sustainable Healthy Habitats and Healthy Humans for Peace, tackling global challenges of sustainability of humanitarian action. And in February this year, we had our presentation of this initiative at the International Humanitarian City in Dubai, which is the largest humanitarian hub in the world. And we are preparing the project for DIHAD, a major humanitarian and development summit and we are preparing for the Dubai Expo 2020, which will hopefully happen after the pandemic ends. And we are exploring the possibilities of combining AI in more than 35 years of combined experience and knowledge and data repository that is collected in this humanitarian field. We concretely work on using machine learning to better access the needs after a disaster, to allocate resources, execute interventions in a timely and equitable way, to plan logistics, or even to locate survivors after the disaster, to identify structures in satellite imagery, and to be able to reach critical essential schools and hospitals.

Branka [16:51]

So this is one of the projects related to communitarian fields. And there is another one that I would really like to mention, especially for this audience of women in AI because I hope it will be inspirational for the things that can be done in this field. And this is the project that I was working on predictive modeling of famine. And the team I worked with, at the World Bank, at a unit called Fragility Conflict and Violence in DC, was developing models to help identify areas with a high probability of famine happening, to enable more impactful famine response. So our team was using the power of AI and machine learning to enhance the accuracy of predictions, as well as speed. So speed is crucial for early action and AI can be used as a helping tool here for achieving that speed.

Branka [18:05]

The traditional network of food security modeling and early warning systems are predominantly qualitative processes and that’s why they take a lot of time. So we ask a question, better, we can translate this into parametric triggers. And as good as securities are concentrated in Africa, we did a pilot project in five African countries, and we used nonparametric and parametric approaches with structural data as geography, economics infrastructures. But what was new in this field is also using the data from information from social networks, for example, using the data on violence and conflict that people are posting online. And this was a very helpful tool for our prediction work. So why I’m mentioning this because it’s very hard to believe, and it’s also heartbreaking when we see that in the 21st century, we still have hundreds of thousands of people who are starving. And this is, for us, this was, in a way, an attempt to contribute to this amazing work already done in this field by international organisations and local grassroots movements. And I believe that there is actually much more potential here in this area and space for data scientists to be more engaged. I hope that this little presentation offline of this project is an inspiration and motivation for other people to get on board as well.

Nikita RE•WORK [19:57]

It definitely will be, I think there are so many inspirational areas that you’ve mentioned so far that some of our listeners will be keen to get involved in more and to find out more about. So linking to that, how are or are there any kind of tips that you can share with our listeners in how they can look to progress their careers in AI, and specifically in some of the areas that you’ve mentioned, and applying those skills. And what should they be doing if they want to try and advance their skills in their career?

Branka [20:34]

Well, I think what I would like to definitely suggest is be open. So there are a lot of technical things that people can do but I would actually concentrate on one piece that can be applied in any field. And I think that we often forget about this and this is this power of mentorship. And just being open to or even having somebody who can advise you throughout your career, I think that’s a really precious thing to have. And at this point, I would actually, especially talking to this network of women, I would like to suggest to people to be open and be not only mentees but also to, not only at the beginning of their career but even being on the advanced stages of their career being more open, to serve as mentors as well. And this is also a very nice way to bring back to the community and I think this is what our community definitely needs.

Branka [21:43]

And another advice that was given to me early in my career, and that I’m trying really to come back to very often, is to know what your passion is, be curious, explore different things, but really be dedicated to your passion, to listening to your heart and what is really close to your emotions. Invest your work and your efforts into this as this will definitely be a bright and a good thing to do.

Nikita RE•WORK [22:21]

Definitely. And I think that’s true for any industry, keeping that curiosity and openness so that you can find out what your real passion is. So where can we keep up to date with the work that you’re doing at AI for Peace? And if any of our listeners are keen to find out more and to get involved, then how would you suggest that they do so?

Branka [22:45]

Sure, you can definitely check our website, aiforpeace.org, or follow us on Twitterand LinkedIn, where we regularly post about our activities and the latest developments in the field. We are also publishing a monthly newsletter, and AI for Peace blog, so I would like to invite all listeners to subscribe or even join as contributors to our blog. And you can also directly join our community of experts in the AI field who are using or who are ready to use their skills and expertise in creating a more peaceful world.

Nikita RE•WORK [23:38]

Thank you. That’s great, thanks Branka for your time today and for sharing some of the work that you’re doing, it is so important and never more so than though. So we’ll definitely share those links once the podcast is live so that any of our listeners that are really keen to find out more can do so. But in the meantime, keep us up to date with what you do and hopefully, we’ll see you either at a virtual event or one of our other events sometime soon.

Branka [24:06]

Absolutely, I hope that as well. And thanks, so much for having me. It was a pleasure to talk with your listeners and stay safe and healthy.

Nikita RE•WORK [24:17]

Thank you, Branka.

Nikita RE•WORK [24:27]

I hope you enjoyed this week’s podcast. It was fascinating to hear about the wider impact of COVID-19 and the important role of using AI to create lasting peace.

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