“Happy 100th birthday to the word ‘robot,’” tweeted linguist Ben Zimmer a few days ago. 

Word nerds around the globe celebrated the centennial of the world premiere of a play titled R.U.R., short for “Rossum’s Universal Robots”. The production by renowned Czech playwright, Karel Capek, debuted at the Prague National Theater on January 25, 1921. Capek coined the word “robot” based on the “Slavic root ‘rob’ meaning ‘forced labor,’” Mr. Zimmer explained in his tweet. “In the play, the robots rebel and exterminate all humans. Fun!” 

In Robots got their name 100 years ago today (January 25, 2021) David Szondy, newatlas.com, explains how “Capek’s R.U.R. profoundly shaped the way robots are conceived in popular culture.” 

In the present day, there linger deep concerns about how humans – and the human workforce, specifically –  will fare in the face of lightning-speed technological expansion including artificial intelligence and robots. 

But according to The Nonprofit Times a few months ago, the nonprofit sector can avert widespread job loss while aggressively embracing artificial intelligence in the coming years. See Robots Can’t Replace (Most) Nonprofit Staff (September 8, 2020).Our collective experience in 2020 during the pandemic reinforces how critical and positive a role technology can play in periods not only of crisis – but as we emerge beyond it. 

That means “leaning in” to A.I. in a smart way. We now pick up where we left off in Artificial Intelligence & Nonprofits: A Primer (September 24, 2019).

        Early Robot Scares 

Karel Capek’s play struck a deep chord in his audience that was reeling from catastrophic upheaval. It wasn’t just from WWI, the influenza pandemic, and related societal changes. These earth-shattering events came on top of several decades of the greatest technology advances then known to humankind. 

“R.U.R. … came along at the perfect moment,” writes David Szondy in his newatlas.com article. “The period between 1880 and 1930 saw the fastest rate of change in human history, with more fundamental advances in half a century than in the previous 2,000 years.” 

“It was the age of the machine, … of Henry Ford [and] his assembly line…. [and of the] … telephone, wireless telegraphy, radio, the first televisions, radium, airplanes, plastic … the world was awash with new technology.”

Although the play takes place beginning in the “then-distant future of 1950,” it “gave a name to the cybernetic machines that were just beginning to emerge [by 1921]” and it “shaped people’s perceptions of what a robot is and the potential dangers they pose.”

       Artificial Intelligence is Here

One hundred years after the R.U.R. premiere in Prague, we are well into a new era of whiplash-inducing technology advances. 

There are “…genuine transformative moments when a technology fundamentally changes the way we live and work,” write Allison Fine and Beth Kanter in their 17-page Nonprofits and Artificial Intelligence: A Guide  (February 2020), sponsored by Microsoft and NTEN. 

The Guide’s authors rely on a theoretical framework created by by expert Jeremiah Owyang who describes “six different digital eras based on past, current, and future disruptive technologies.” (We are not anywhere near the beginning of this cycle, by the way.

The first four of Mr. Owyang’s six eras (applied to the nonprofit world) are: 

  • Internet Era: Biggest challenge was digitizing information
  • Social Media Age: Online networks altered organizational fundraising and communications
  • Collaborative Economy Age: Getting resources from each other, it enabled the rise of people-to- people crowdfunding at scale 
  • Autonomous World: Artificial Intelligence and “machine learning” automate human tasks by analyzing enormous amounts of data

In case you’re wondering, the “last transformative moment” was “15 years ago with the advent of social media….”

“The next disruptive moment has arrived.” It is “powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI)” and “will have an increasingly significant impact on the way every person lives and works.” While artificial intelligence has been around in some form since the 1950s, what makes it “so essential and disruptive now” is the massive improvement in computer-processing power” and the huge amounts of “Big Data” collected since the beginning of the Internet Era that “feed AI algorithms and … generate more accurate and predictable insights.” 

Also key is that “AI is now packaged in accessible, non-technical ways that enable everyday people and organizations to use it, sometimes without even knowing they are using it.” 

The authors are “… not sounding the alarm bells that the robots are taking over” but instead explain that “artificial intelligence will fundamentally change what we know, what we can do, and how we can do it. New tools and processes, some of which are highlighted [in the Guide] will let nonprofits analyze data to identify patterns and automate tasks that can serve clients faster, more efficiently, and a grander scale than ever before.” 

       Artificial Intelligence Focus

Why, with the pandemic still raging in full force all around us, have we turned the spotlight once again on artificial intelligence? 

In the midst of all the chaos and disruption caused by COVID-19, the availability of 2020 technology lessened the impact dramatically. Imagine if a deadly pandemic had struck 15 years ago? There would be no remote communications, operations, or fundraising. While many nonprofits are hurting badly or have had to suspend operations or shut down, there’s little question that the entire sector would have shut down in an earlier era. 

We’ve mentioned data and surveys that show that the nonprofit sector as a whole has been a bit slow on the uptick in making necessary technology investments. 

In Revisiting Nonprofit Predictions for 2020 (November 17, 2020), we covered “technology and data” as the second of the most pressing challenges – along with “funding challenges and opportunities.” While most nonprofit executives recognize the importance of investing in technology, there have been barriers: the complexity of the subject, inadequate staff in-house, and the shortage of funds to buy the expertise elsewhere along with the cost of the software and hardware.

Then there’s the hurdle of “making the board of directors understand the need and benefit of this category of substantial financial investment.” We added: “Needless to say, there are few nonprofit directors in late 2020 that continue to doubt the importance of major investments in technology.”

       Conclusion 

Where to start? The Nonprofits and Artificial Intelligence: A Guide referenced here is one good source. Its sponsor Microsoft has “invested in NTEN … to provide resources about the cloud, cybersecurity, and artificial intelligence to increase the capacity of all nonprofits to understand these topics, make plans, and train staff.” There are additional resources listed in that publication. 

Our September 2019 post includes other resources, and we’ll be adding to them. See also: What Nonprofits Stand to Gain From Artificial Intelligence (January 22, 2021) Dr. Lobna Karoui, Forbes.  

            — Linda J. Rosenthal, J.D., FPLG Information & Research Director

       Photo: [uncredited] from London premiere of R.U.R., January 1923

 

 

 

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