Artificial Intelligence and Sustainable Development Goals

Artificial Intelligence (AI) & Sustainable Development Goals. Is it possible?

Setting the goals for a new future

The 2030 United Nations’ Agenda for Sustainable Development has set out over 169 targets to bring countries and the world’s stakeholders together with the ultimate goal of triggering collaborative partnerships to drive sustainable economic, social and environmental changes.

As the world moves towards a more automated and machine-driven future, we must begin to look at increasingly innovative ways to meet these objectives effectively with dignity and equality. With the interlinkages and integrated nature intrinsic to the healthcare sector, Artificial Intelligence, or AI, is beginning to show promises not only as a fulcrum to drastically improve worldwide health delivery but also as a reliable tool to meet effectively the targets set forth by the UN agenda.

Though AI is still in its infancy, it has too often been painted with a slightly less-than-appealing brush without reflecting on the genuine promise of sustainability and equality it carries at its core. Mainstream opinions predict much doom and gloom in the form of smart technology run-rampant, but the truth is, AI may one day, and sooner than we think, become our saving grace. Indeed, AI carries secretly in its womb an elusive promise; one of far better humankind where the democratization of knowledge, technology, and resources is achievable.

UN Goal number 3: Good Health and Well-Being for humankind

In recent years, there have been tremendous improvements in global healthcare: mortality rates among children in developing countries are down, overall life expectancy is up and endemic diseases, some of which we are still struggling with, like malaria, are progressively causing fewer deaths through better preventative actions and more stringent control measures. There is, however, still a large, unconcealable gap that exists between the healthcare ecosystem found in third-world countries and the healthcare reality we enjoy in first-world, developed societies. Sustainable development goal number 3 aims to strategically shrink that gap and empower a greater percentage of the world’s population to access essential healthcare services as well as safe, effective and affordable medical care.

Since actionable steps towards goal 3 were set forth, significant worldwide improvements were made, but there is still a great chance that a few countries will fall woefully short of meeting these optimistic targets. Unfortunately, some countries are set to only get a fleeting glimpse of those Sustainable Development Goals that aim to lower maternal mortality rates, reduce teenage pregnancies, improve universal access to healthcare, and increase the number of vaccinated and immunized children worldwide.

What Does All This Have to Do with AI?

AI is everywhere. It’s your Amazon ordering system and your Spotify playlist, but what if it could be so much more? If we started distilling its incredible potential for change and applying it to the healthcare sector it could have a massive impact on how patients are categorized, diagnosed and ultimately treated on a global level.

Machine learning works by ingesting immensely complex and voluminous amounts of data and using them to detect patterns which, in turn, can be used to predict trends and prevent foreseeable challenges through proactive and measurable actions. For example, in Tanzania, AI is currently being used to predict vaccine usage across local healthcare centers. Should there be any part of a country that doesn’t meet the vaccination standards set within a particular demographic, the population subset can be proactively flagged and addressed preemptively. At the same time, AI allows for better more streamlined stocking practices thus preventing shortages or stock-outs in regions where resources are scarce and sparsely allocated.

As promising as AI is in achieving worldwide healthcare sustainable development goals, it will most definitely not take place without its share of challenges. First-world countries will have much greater access to newer technologies than their third-world counterparts, potentially widening the existing healthcare rift that already exists between them. AI must, therefore, be developed inclusively with all countries and communities in unison. There is no space for money-hungry corporations hiking up prices and denying life-saving technologies to those who can’t afford it. Will AI simply create more disparities in a world where half of the population currently doesn’t have access to the most basic healthcare resources?

On the other hand, AI has yet to be proven effective at scale within clinical settings. It works fabulously well in controlled settings, but the real-life outcomes of AI applied to global health initiatives still have to be compounded and crystallized into exportable success stories. The UN sustainable development goals are set to be achieved by 2030, and with that objective in mind, if AI is to play a central part in achieving them, it needs to deliver concrete results in the field within the next year or so.

Looking to the future, AI has the potential to seriously change the face of healthcare as we know it and go a long way in helping us meet the United Nations’ sustainable development goals by the 2030 deadline. That being said, there are still challenges to overcome. If developing countries can surmount the political and economic factors that are holding them back and if healthcare organizations can improve their data infrastructure enough to accommodate AI technology, then there may be light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.


Simply put, if we can overcome our greed and mistrust of technology to allow AI to improve global healthcare without demanding enormous rewards in return, then we may just save millions of lives.