Artificial intelligence, or AI, is one of those futuristic sounding things – like flying cars or life on Mars – that seems to belong to this distant next-level of human experience. But we’ve recently learned it’s closer than we think.
Simply put, AI leverages computers and machines to enable problem-solving and decision-making capabilities usually done by human beings. Alan Turing, often referred to as the “father of computer science,” published a paper in 1950 that asked the question, “Can machines think?” His now famous “Turing Test” featured a researcher who tried to tell the difference between a computer and human text response.
Over half a century later, AI’s potential for transforming human learning and experience sparks more questions than answers. There’s lots of legal and ethical questions to be considered, such as who should be allowed to create these tools? How would AI affect our behaviors and interactions? Could people lose their jobs and be replaced by machines? What unintended consensus could come from an AI-based world?
And the main question for those of us who have dedicated our careers to philanthropy – how does artificial intelligence apply to the nonprofit sector?
Well, not too long ago, things got a little more interesting – and a little more real.
In December 2022, an AI research company called OpenAI released ChatGPT, a chatbot that might change the world forever. This free language processing tool lets users ask questions and give directions to a bot that responds with almost anything – from movie scripts to term papers to limericks. Much more advanced than even many in the tech industry expected, as of now, anyone can use it through a simple web interface.
The level that ChatGPT produces answers to questions posed by humans is remarkable, and is being viewed as a tipping point for artificial intelligence. As many of us can imagine, the use of AI in writing can undoubtedly have a powerful impact on the productivity of businesses across industries.
Now let’s turn our thinking to nonprofits. Could something like ChatGPT take over work that many of us rely on copywriters and development staff to do? Would it be able to write appeals and general cultivation efforts better than even our best work? How might donors react if they knew?
We could keep going into a rabbit hole of questions. Instead, it’s worth first considering how artificial intelligence already presents itself in our lives, from managing our emails and calendars to voice assistants like Alexa to helping accelerate the development of the COVID-19 vaccine in record speed. Whether we’ve noticed or not, we’re using AI every single day.
At first glance, something like ChatGPT could provide enormous help to smaller organizations whose staff may already be thinly stretched, allowing them to produce more written materials in less time.
And aside from just writing, artificial intelligence – when used appropriately – can have massive effects on lightening the load for many nonprofits. It can help streamline and improve the segmentation process making electronic and print appeals more targeted, possibly boosting results and efficiency. It can help identify patterns and trends in data that might be difficult for humans to detect. Tools like data analytics and wealth screening offer fundraisers easier ways to uncover where they should focus their time to leverage opportunities for upgraded giving and improve retention. And it can be used to analyze behaviors and preferences, increasing the likelihood of successful outreach and donor conversion efforts because we can better understand who among our donors are the most likely to be interested in our mission over the long term.
But there are two sides to every coin. While tools like ChatGPT can successfully churn out almost anything you ask of it, some argue that it doesn’t actually “know” anything – only what it’s been trained on. It can confidently state inaccuracies, such as stating it takes 9 women and 1 month to make a baby. It can’t tell us where information comes from either. That alone means that humans certainly can’t be replaced any time soon – unless you want to risk the chance your appeals contain nonsense or misinformation.
So while there may be a lot that artificial intelligence can help in our day-to-day lives and jobs, it seems unlikely that it could ever take the place of humans, at least in the philanthropic space. So much of our sector revolves around the core value of being humanitarians. We turn to each other for empathy, understanding, and a number of emotions that AI may not ever be able to recreate.
The last and possibly most important thing to consider are the ethical concerns. It might be helpful to hear that conversations are already in the works, one of them being the Global AI Action Alliance, which is a platform for philanthropic and technology leaders to engage in the development of ethical AI practices and tools. This Alliance was launched in efforts to make sure that AI is being used ethically and in line with global public interest.
For now, we should pay close attention to the potential of artificial intelligence as tools like ChatGPT have taken things to the next level. Currently, more questions than answers remain, but we should anticipate it becoming a deeper part of our daily workflow in the near future.