Microsoft Commits $40 Million to Explore A.I. Disaster Relief Applications 

The company sets its eyes on humanitarian work.

Artificial intelligence has the potential to aid in the process of saving lives in the aftermath of devastating natural disasters, with its ability to crunch numbers and spot patterns.

But unfortunately, the best software out there is rarely tailored to the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and humanitarian firms that lead relief efforts. According to the Nonprofit Technology Staffing and Investments Report, nearly nine out of every ten non profits describes themselves as either “barely maintaining, or failing to maintain, their technology systems.”

Fortunately tech giants like Microsoft are starting to help fill in the gap, and on Monday the company pledged $40 million over the course of five years toward its newly announced A.I. for Humanitarian Action program. The initiative will use machine learning to achieve four goals: “helping the world recover from disasters, addressing the needs of children, protecting refugees and displaced people, and promoting respect for human rights,” by using computer models and a chatbot, named Hakeem to help victims.

Microsoft could one day more accurately track exactly where devastating storms, like Hurricane Florence, are headed.


With damage from Hurricane Florence estimated to be approximately $20 billion and the death toll climbing to 44 as of Sunday, it’s once again evident that there’s no such thing as over-preparing. Microsoft plans on collaborating with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), like the World Bank and the United Nations, to put A.I. and cloud computing technology at the forefront of solving this challenge.

The tech company will attempt to aid in disaster preparation so government authorities and NGOs can mobilize more quickly and assist in the aftermath. This is similar to what enables IBM Watson’s Deep Thunder division, an A.I. application that has used barometric data to provide local weather forecasts since 2016, and Panasonic’s computer model that had some of the most accurate predictions of Hurricane Irma’s path in 2017.

Homes and businesses are surrounded by water flowing out of the Cape Fear River in the eastern part of North Carolina Sept. 17, 2018, in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence.

Flickr / North Carolina National Guard

How A.I. Can Aid In Disaster Relief

First-response and disaster relief efforts heavily rely on being able to act quickly and confidently. Microsoft will work hand-in-hand with organizations like the World Bank and the United Nations to ensure they have these capabilities at their fingertips when they need it the most.

“We believe that technology, like artificial intelligence combined with cloud technology, can be a game changer, helping save more lives, alleviate suffering and restore human dignity by changing the way frontline relief organizations anticipate, predict and better target response efforts,” wrote Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer, in a statement.

In the United States alone, there were 15 reported natural disasters in 2017 that killed 323 people and caused $1 billion or more in damages, according to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration. Floods, storms, wildfires, and droughts like this have also claimed lives worldwide. The potential for A.I. may be even greater outside of the U.S.: Take the example of a 2017 flood in Bangladesh that killed well over 1,000 people and required the establishment of 2,000 relief camps, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Giving NGOs A.I. capabilities to work toward more efficient and swift responses in regions where there isn’t as much disaster relief infrastructure in place.

Flood victims getting lifted to safety.

Flickr / NCDOTcommunications

But prediction can only go so far — bad things happen — but that’s where Hakeem the chatbot comes into play. Microsoft, alongside the Norwegian Refugee Council, NetHope and University College Dublin worked together to create an educational resource for displaced youth. Hakeem gives users access to online courses in their native language at no cost and will soon be used to help relief workers communicate with refugees that speak a different language in the future.

A.I. for Humanitarian Action has set forth these aims as an expansion of Microsoft’s A.I. for Good suit, which has served to start the A.I. for Earth and A.I. for Accessibility initiatives. Both of these previous efforts help to combat the effects of global warming and empower people with disabilities using A.I. tools. Counting Monday’s announcement, the tech firm has dedicated a total of $115 million dollars to these three causes.

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