Beyond Corporate Purpose: Artificial Intelligence Joins A Good Cause

Ivona Crnoja

There is no shortage of debate when it comes to artificial intelligence (AI). Negative feelings about AI defeating humans, robots overthrowing humanity, and AI used for evil purposes by humans are no rarity. When talking about the potential bad impacts of AI, our creativity knows no limits.

In contrast, when thinking about how AI could support good causes, we are hardly that imaginative. The idea of robots outplaying humans and escaping the control of their creators to surpass and enslave them simply makes for better movie material.

However, AI has shown the potential to tackle some of the world’s most challenging socioeconomic problems.

AI-powered assistive technologies are already unlocking myriad possibilities for people with disabilities. AI powers various technologies, such as object recognition and visual question answering (VQA), which can lend an eye to the blind (SeeingAI), give voice to non-verbal people (Bright Sign), increase cognitive abilities of people with autism and dementia (Content Clarifier), as well as offer an ear to the 360 million people who are hearing-impaired (Roger Voice).

ERP Airforce: Technology combating wildlife slaughter in Southern Africa

The McKinsey Global Institute has analyzed potential AI applications for social good and compiled a library of about 160 AI social-impact use cases. They suggest that “existing capabilities could contribute to tackling cases across all 17 of the UN’s sustainable-development goals, potentially helping hundreds of millions of people in both advanced and emerging countries.”

One of these major development goals is ending poverty worldwide, and it is being tackled in Southern Africa by a non-governmental organization (NGO) called ERP – Elephants, Rhinos, and People. ERP was founded as a nonprofit initiative by Groupelephant.com, employs more than 2,000 people worldwide, and is better known for its EPI-USE subsidiary trading brand. EPI-USE is the world’s leading independent SAP HR/payroll service provider, with a particular focus on large, complex multinational corporations and large public sector agencies.

Since poverty is widely considered the leading driver that causes people living in adjacent rural areas to poach (as the price for a pair of average male elephant tusks reaches up to $50,000), creating powerful economic engines that can alleviate poverty among rural people is key to creating substantial wildlife corridors and conservation areas.

ERP is working on a variety of initiatives, all designed to alleviate poverty and protect elephants and rhinos in an area of more than 20,000 hectares. One of these initiatives is called the ERP Airforce – a wildlife monitoring and anti-poaching solution that successfully leverages EPI-USE’s deep cloud integration know-how in developing its IoT capabilities for monitoring and safeguarding elephants and rhinos in the wild through a combination of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), SAP cloud software, and a variety of field sensors.

How it works is that individual animals wear GPS collars, while drones track their locations. The GPS collars send alerts to conservation workers in the field when elephants are approaching the reserve boundaries, who send UAVs to the location to monitor the elephant until the rangers arrive. These measures monitor the elephants and rhinos and keep them in a safe area. Fitting GPS tracking devices to rhinos and elephants is a risky and expensive exercise, so the ERP Airforce also uses a number of field devices to proactively monitor elephants and rhinos’ safety.

ERP Vision: AI threat identification

Over time, the ERP Airforce shifted its strategy from monitoring missions to anti-poaching missions. Due to this shift, reducing response time and increasing tactical awareness of the overall operation became critical. The existing process turned out to be too manual and time-intensive, since personnel were constantly required to control the drones, and identification of threats in both still and video footage needed to be conducted by a human analyst.

This is where AI finally came into place.

Since AI-based processes scale more readily than manual processes and would allow ERP to deploy people to other, much-needed areas of the ERP Airforce operation, ERP placed field sensors all over the terrain to take photos and footage from the surrounding area when they detect movement. The footage from these field sensors is uploaded to the cloud platform using IoT technology. Once in the cloud, ERP runs a machine-vision solution on the images to flag images that show persons or vehicles suggesting a human threat. Whenever an image is flagged, the AI solution automatically sends the location to a drone, which is then automatically sent to the area detected. If not for the AI technology, volunteers would need to go through a huge amount of footage manually to detect issues on the terrain – with 200,000 hectares of land across the different reserves, this would be a full-time job.

Understanding that digital transformation is key to building a sustainable and just economy, ERP has successfully leveraged deep cloud integration know-how from Groupelephant.com’s EPI-USE subsidiary to develop IoT capabilities for monitoring and safeguarding elephants and rhinos in the wild. Furthermore, with the development of an additional AI-solution, ERP Vision enhances the capability of the ERP Airforce by using AI to proactively identify threats to the animals.

By leveraging these new technologies, the ERP Airforce covered areas that protected 299 rhino and 259 elephants in the last year. Nevertheless, AI is not intended to become a replacement for traditional conservation, David Allen, who leads the ERP Airforce, emphasizes.

“Technology is used to maximize the team on the ground who do the monitoring in the reserve. Many of the technical specialists and software developers that form part of my EPI-USE team volunteer their time and expertise to build out the software suite that powers the ERP Airforce. It’s a really powerful proposition and my team takes great pride in knowing that, while they’re building complex solutions to solve customers’ integration challenges, the next minute they’re using the same skills to analyze photos from a trail camera and launch a UAV to protect one of our reserves.”

While the pessimists among us may see AI technologies one day leading to the doom of humanity, AI is much more likely to create miracles for humans, animals, and the environment. What’s certain is that new technologies will continue to emerge and provide great opportunities for a better future – and rather than procrastinating, we should use our creativity to embrace them for the good.

Learn more about ERP.

Learn more about how SAP supports the 17 UN Global Goals.

Find out about the SAP AI Ethics Advisory Panel.


Ivona Crnoja

About Ivona Crnoja

Ivona drives Marketing and Communications for the machine learning research team at SAP in Berlin. Together they work on bridging the gap between academia and industry by solving tough machine learning challenges and developing new approaches with potential applications across various industries. They aim to advance knowledge in the field of AI while identifying applications for machine learning and developing algorithms and systems that make SAP solutions more efficient, scalable, and transparent. Ivona dedicates her time to exploring the latest machine learning challenges and trends, while writing articles to share the team's research achievements with the world.