Reimagining our world via distributed AI – Leaving No One Behind

By Radhika Shah, Advisor, SDG Philanthropy Platform, Co-President Stanford Angels & Entrepreneur; Prof. David Cheriton, Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University, Investor, and Prof. Ken Birman, Professor of Computer Science at Cornell University, Entrepreneur, Investor.

A Unique moment in time offers opportunity to Reimagine our world 

Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions,said Albert Einstein.

We live in a unique moment in time, when a constellation of forces are compelling a rethinking of societal norms. Technology is enabling us to bring revolutionary changes in the way we think, live and work. And yet, across the world we are confronted with a reality: the technology revolution risks leaving a large segment of population behind. This is the moment to reimagine ourselves and our world – in a way that leaves no one behind.

“Artificial Intelligence is the new electricity,” said Andrew Ng, pioneer of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Stanford Computer Science Professor. A co-founder of Coursera, which has democratized access to education, Andrew has shown a deep commitment to using AI to respond to societal challenges.  His values have been contagious: Dr. Ashutosh Saxena, who studied robotics under Professor Ng at Stanford and went on to become a pioneering professor at Cornell, is today creating revolutionary AI technology that could democratize comfortable and safe living via “AI homes” including for the vulnerable.

Tech as Transformation Lever to Accelerate Sustainable Development Goals

AI-driven efforts can be a game-changer in bringing access to basic services for all humanity.  The need is sweeping: In Sept 2015, in a monumental collaboration at UNHQ NYC, World leaders agreed to the ambitious 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their spirit of Leaving No One Behind –  in acknowledgment of the existential crisis we find ourselves in. These goals weave together social, economic, and environmental challenges and solutions. And yet, 5 years into this collaboration we have a long way to go and we are at the risk of a new form of divide the Digital Divide.

With COVID exposing the deep underlying crises, there has never been a more urgent need for governments, philanthropy, and civil society to step-up to this global call to action. The SDGs offer a normative framework to structure our response. The SDG Philanthropy Platform is a rare example of a platform leveraging inclusive innovation frameworks and catalyzing collaboration across and within countries and sectors – including philanthropy, Government, multilateral institutions like the United Nations, and others – to advance the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

How do we harness the power of AI to effectively leapfrog by rapidly scaling solutions for impact? 

Distributed Artificial Intelligence (DAI) can Transform our future 

To bring AI-driven solutions to the physical world, we need a new framework that rethinks the computing architecture for the physical world. Today’s cloud computing platforms concentrate data into massive data-centers, but this creates privacy concerns. A new opportunity centers on a completely new form of architecture: an edge cloud for the IoT (Internet of Things)  that brings intelligence right on the edge – farms, homes, cities.

The stunning potential of Distributed AI on the edge is that it is inherently privacy-preserving, and because it runs to the edge, it is intrinsically resilient.  An edge cloud could enable city-wide coordination in weather or wildfire emergencies – even if the network is down!

Distributed AI innovations helping society – Entrepreneur-Funder Collaborations 

Distributed AI has tremendous potential to transform industries in the physical world – for example, farming, housing, transportation, and climate. Traditionally investors have funded primarily profit-driven tech companies, while fundamental innovation for impact efforts are often only explored in university or philanthropic settings. 

To bring the full power of AI innovation to bear on urgent social challenges, non-traditional funders such as impact investors, foundations, and philanthropists will need to build bridges between academia, traditional funders, and the business world.  As investors who are passionate about AI-for-Impact, we have invested in companies like BlueRiver (agriculture) and Caspar.AI (intelligent-homes). Below we share the Caspar.AI story: one that makes concrete the value of Distributed AI as a lever to transform society.

Democratizing safe, comfortable living for elderly – Transforming Homes via DAI

As the COVID pandemic has played out, who among us has not been heartbroken to read about the tragedies at one nursing home after another, decimated by the virus?  Indeed, we all can point to stories of elderly loved ones who developed disabilities that forced them to give up a cherished life of independence.  How many could have continued to live independently if they simply had a bit more support at home, at an affordable cost?

This is precisely the transformative vision that led entrepreneur Ashutosh Saxena to found Caspar.AI, which uses Distributed AI to disrupt the housing market with automation – increasing resident’s safety and comfort, saving energy, lowering costs, improving caregiving quality – with a successful business model. Ashutosh became fascinated with the idea of a home as a ‘behind-the-scenes computing-platform’, supporting features for a diversity of clients: the resident, the landlord, even the surrounding community. In response to COVID, he pivoted Caspar.AI to focus on solutions for the elderly.  Today, with the COVID pandemic triggering a surge in demand for independent living options, the product addresses the need of this segment and is already proving itself in a fast-growing market.

There is a shortage of solutions for elderly demographic, due to the cost and limited access to caregivers. Caspar.AI automates many tasks so that a resident can maintain their independence, who otherwise would need a more managed form of care.

Caspar.AI can be understood as having two architectural elements. First, the system has an edge cloud of its own – which is a powerful privacy-preserving platform – perhaps the first fully realized edge cloud solution in any industry. The other element is the Caspar.AI home intelligence, which runs as a Distributed AI over the edge cloud.  It upgrades the home with IoT devices converting the home into a pervasively-automated-system without ever needing to export data to a centralized data center. 

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A home automated using Caspar.AI becomes an Extended Living Environment that caters to the broader elder-care ecosystem. This systems approach extends from the activities of the residents to the caregivers, landlord, community assistants of various kinds, and a myriad of other dimensions that co-exist to support a tranquil, safe independent lifestyle:

  • Safety-Incident-Auto-Detection Seniors could fall down or leave the stove on while caregivers could not go in to help. Caspar.AI detects such incidents, auto-alerting family, and caregivers. 
  • Automatically-Adjusting Environment E.g. turns on lights when a resident goes to the kitchen for water at night.
  • Healthy-Engaged-Lifestyle E.g.Caspar.AI motivates residents, opens curtains to let in natural light & starts a coffee machine. 
  • Auto-Recommendations. E.g., exercise routines, auto-managing gym access, and Yoga without requiring unnecessary physical contact.
  • Auto-Health-Reminders. E.g. for high-quality sleep, healthy food & sufficient water intake.

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Seniors need easy-to-use solutions – this intelligent home itself acts as an AI butler – no wearables needed.

Senior residents face increased risks during a pandemic – often caregiving services are suspended. “I can finally sleep well knowing that my mother is safe and well cared for, especially in these challenging times,” says the daughter of a Caspar.AI resident. 

Today, Caspar.AI focuses on the home, however, the Casper.AI platform is general and can enable the type of inclusive innovation needed from the community to achieve the SDGs.  After all, once we create a platform, only our imaginations limit what can ultimately be achieved!

Shifting Systems via Inclusive Innovation that Leaves No One Behind

This is our moment to seize – our chance to be the pioneers reimagining AI innovation for societal impact – inclusive innovation that democratizes access. If we are to truly bring the Systems Change needed to Leave No One Behind, all of us must team up – mission-driven tech entrepreneurs with win-win business models, academics, and funders – from foundations, philanthropists, impact investors, policymakers and more to come together. Worldwide Initiatives for Grantmaker Support (WINGS) Forum 2020-2021 will bring together the global philanthropy community to raise their voices, share diverse knowledge and reimagine a post-COVID world benefiting from technology innovation and new funding and business models.

The future depends on what we do in the present said Mahatma Gandhi. This is indeed the moment to bring the power of our creativity to reimagine a more inclusive world – leapfrog via technology innovation.

This article is part of the WINGSForum Imagine Series, focusing on the theme and sub-themes of technology, power and economy.


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Radhika Shah, Co-President of Stanford Angels and Entrepreneurs, Advisor, Sustainable Development Goals Philanthropy Platform, Illumen Capital (Fund of Impact Funds tackling Bias) & Stanford Center for Human Rights & International Justice, Board, Center for Effective Global Action, MSCS Stanford, MBA U.C Berkeley, investor, Caspar.AI.



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David Cheriton is a Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University and received the SIGCOMM Lifetime Achievement Award for his seminal work in networking and operating systems.  He is also a Silicon Valley investor who co-founded Arista Networks (IPO), Kealia (Acq. Sun Microsystems), and Granite Systems (Acq. Cisco Systems). He wrote Google their first check and is listed on the Forbes Midas List.



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Ken Birman is a Professor of Computer Science at Cornell University and received his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley.   His work automated the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange, built the communication architecture of the French Air Traffic Control System, and helped the US Navy revamp the AEGIS.   He helped Cornell create its Tech campus in New York, which trains graduate students to engage in entrepreneurship and positive social engagement.

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