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UNICEF Uses AI to Help Underprivileged Children

Synced sat down with Christopher Fabian, the co-founder of UNICEF's for-profit Innovation Fund, in Geneva, where he took us through the Innovation Fund's innovative mandate.

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Christopher Fabian – the co-founder of UNICEF’s Innovation Fund – is using artificial intelligence to help underprivileged children in the bottom quintile of the world’s population.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has 12,000 employees in 190 countries. Support comes via government and corporate funding and private charitable donations. The gigantic, 71 year-old organization has a newly founded for-profit unit: the UNICEF Innovation Fund, with a staff of just 30. For its co-founder Christopher Fabian — an enterprising New Yorker whose career has focused on providing technological solutions — the connection between “helping children” and “technological innovation” comes naturally.

Following a push by the United Nations to get on board the “exponential” development of AI technology, the Innovation Fund invests in companies working with bots, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, additive manufacturing, and block chain and distributed ledger technology.

Synced sat down with Fabian in Geneva, where he took us through the Innovation Fund’s innovative mandate: “Our work is concrete. We make businesses that have a positive impact in the world. We cannot be hopeful or dreamy, everything is very business-oriented.”

To this end, the Innovation Fund is for profit, unlike other UN agencies. It makes US$50,000 – 100,000 investments into startups. “We invest in [projects] in what we call ‘100 billion dollar industry’ or that satisfy ‘1 billion person’s needs’. So far the fund has invested in drones, data science, and predictive analytics companies for healthcare. We can do hardware, but hardware’s really hard, there are extra dependencies,” explains Fabian. “The fund doesn’t take any equity stake in invested companies, instead, we ensure their IP stays in the public domain.”

Screen Shot 2017-07-17 at 2.42.31 PMInvestment statistics retrieved via UNICEF Innovation Fund’s official website

The follow-up on investments also involves challenges. Startups from UNICEF often work cross-border and deal with government agencies. Fortunately, UNICEF has a strong global presence and direct relationships with local officials and even heads of state. While Fabian spends a lot of time helping startups build sound business models, he also “connects them to other companies, to get the first set of test data. If there’s a company and Brazil working on the same thing, we connect them and get their volume up because they will never directly compete with each other.”

“If we work on a project in Kenya for facial recognition, you can scan an image to see if children are healthy and malnourished. You can build a model for this ethic group through different sizes of bones and run it. The data will stay in country, but their model remains public,” says Fabian. In the end, the role of UNICEF is to advocate for the world’s most vulnerable children. This can range from “kids from Burundi who aren’t getting the right education, to kids in Kenya suffering from draughts and those in Western China left behind as their parents go to work.”

Although for-profit, the Innovation Fund also supported “Yuudee” (direct translation of ‘raindrop’ from Chinese), a project developed in conjunction with the Tsinghua and Peking Universities in China. Yuudee is “an augmentative and alternative communication tool for children who have difficulty in speech, and can also be used as a teaching tool for parents and teachers to teach children communication and cognitive skills. Children can press an icon and the App will ‘speak’ out a short sentence or phrase that expresses a need, request, emotion or answer.”

“There’s no business around [Yuudee], but this is one thing that needs to happen,” affirmed Fabian. He’s willing to take a loss for the cause.

Despite the current speed of technological development, the future remains bleak for many kids living in war zones or poverty. While mega-metropolises will continue to flourish, children in rural areas are facing increasingly bigger gaps compared to their peers in cities. Fabian believes it’s about identifying places and applications where tech can make a difference for children in need: “You see already, the world is unstable. We need to create bits of light in areas that need them the most.”


Author: Meghan Han | Editor: Michael Sarazen

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