Global Youths Showcase How to Harness AI for Sustainable Development During Tsinghua University and UNDP Event

The inaugural year of a six-month artificial intelligence (AI) and sustainability-themed youth boot camp, organized by the Institute for AI International Governance of Tsinghua University (I-AIIG) with support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), culminated with an online competition between finalists on Tuesday evening.

Taking the top prize was a team called WeReco, which designed an e-commerce platform capable of bringing about a shift away from linear consumption in favor of the circular economy. According to the team’s presentation, the platform represents a “a marketplace for consumers to purchase recyclable, biodegradable and eco-friendly household goods,” with the help of an AI-powered virtual assistant.

To help integrate their ideas into a user-friendly mobile app, WeReco plans to adopt open-source software development kit Flutter – which has been used previously by Chinese internet giants Tencent and Alibaba – due to its efficiency and content delivery capabilities. Through educating their users on product ingredients, health benefits and environmental footprints, the winning team “aims to close the communication gap by personalizing consumers’ behavioral change towards a sustainable lifestyle.”

Starting in June 2021, the collaborative effort between Tsinghua University and the UNDP seeks to provide a platform for young people across the globe to work together in developing AI-based solutions to the most urgent contemporary problems such as climate change, socioeconomic inequality and public health.

During the first year of the boot camp, more than 1,300 individuals participated in activities designed to help bring about the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which collectively offer “a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future.” The SDGs were adopted by all UN member states in 2015 as part of an effort to achieve a more equitable and eco-friendly global economy by 2030.

In attendance as an official judge at Tuesday evening’s final competition was the UNDP Resident Representative in China, Ms. Beate Trankmann, who spoke from her Beijing office: “The aim, of course, was to bring together the brightest minds that we have in AI today and connect them with talented and creative youths, to apply AI technologies to solve real development challenges and achieve the sustainable development goals – the SDGs for people and planet – by 2030. And I think on that count we’ve definitely succeeded.”

Xue Lan
Professor Xue Lan (薛澜), Dean of Schwarzman College and Dean of the I-AIIG of Tsinghua University, served as chairman of the judges panel during Tuesday’s final competition. (Source: U&AI/Zoom)

Among the other teams that participated in the final competition was runner-up AKET, a multinational team focused on actualizing a digital solution to the problem of food waste. Taking the form of a WeChat mini app called Taojia, this innovative idea would help link suppliers in possession of food nearing its expiration date with individual consumers in their area, using AI-powered data processing and recommendation.

Coming in third was AI Care, an undergraduate student team from the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, which proposed a computer vision-based solution to improving elderly health through long-term monitoring of individuals’ behavior. The product would enable a greater understanding of elderly health, providing real-time analysis and updates on a user’s condition.

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Offering some perspective, Ms. Trankmann warned against regarding new technology as a silver bullet in global sustainability efforts, saying: “While AI offers significant promise in helping meet our world’s needs and accelerating progress towards the SDGs, technological advancements also bring risks. And I think we must ensure that these technologies don’t actually widen existing societal gaps and biases, but instead are used for the common good and are available for all.”

Serving as chairman of the judges panel during Tuesday evening’s competition was Professor Xue Lan, Dean of Schwarzman College and Dean of the I-AIIG, who stressed in his opening remarks: “We have reached a critical crossroads for AI development and governance, and also … for implementing the SDGs.”

Professor Xue continued, “Following a review by the judges, 14 proposals entered the semifinals, covering diverse topics including AI for ecology, AI for predicting natural disasters, AI for reducing food waste, AI for gender equality, AI for resource allocation in healthcare, AI for education equity, and many others. I’m very pleased to see so many outstanding next generation leaders, honing their ideas and working together to develop innovative solutions that leverage AI for the SDGs.”