The American dream is that no matter where anyone starts out in life, through hard work a bright future is possible. Unfortunately, the reality is that the American dream is not promised to everyone. In America, nearly a million youth ages 14 to 26 have spent at least one day in foster care due to abuse, neglect or parents being unable to provide adequate care. Many foster youth do not go back home or get adopted, and on their 18th birthday, they have to put their belongings into a trash bag, leave their foster home, and figure out how to survive in the world on their own.
I grew up in the foster care system, and one of the toughest experiences of my youth was the death of my older brother, Tyson. As a young man, my brother tried his best in school and worked extra-long hours, struggling to save as much as he could, despite poverty, in order to get me and my siblings out of foster care. So losing my brother to gun to violence was devastating. A few years later, I also lost my sister, Nicole. Both passed away before they could reach their mid-twenties.
I truly believe that had my siblings received access to informative resources about basic life skills, developmental opportunities, and exposure to strong support systems, they could have become stable and healthy adults. But without proper support, opportunities and resources, youth have dismal outcomes. The Midwest study on foster youth aging out found that by age 26, less than 3 percent of these young people had earned a bachelor’s degree, and about half were making less than $10,000 a year. Approximately 20 percent had experienced homelessness, while nearly 80 percent of the young women had been pregnant at least once.
I was fortunate to be one of the exceptions – and to help tackle these issues, I founded a nonprofit, Think of Us. We believe that all youth deserve to heal, develop and thrive beyond self-sufficiency. With that goal in mind, we are leveraging technology to arm youth and young adults with tools for a successful life.
The Think of Us Platform is a life coaching resource that empowers youth to build their own support system by creating a personal advisory board around them as they transition out of foster care and into the workforce and/or post-secondary education. The platform provides young people with interactive videos, self-coaching activities, and planning tools to help them identify and set personal goals, while also providing a framework to achieve the goals they set. Through this platform, young adults gain the information and insights they need to overcome everyday challenges, such as renting an apartment or reconnecting with biological family. The app also connects to the foster care system database so that the foster care system can be more efficient in providing the right resources, services and coaching.
Artificial intelligence (AI) technologies have the potential to take our platform to the next level, enabling machines to learn from data and adapt their capabilities based on their experiences. We are currently developing “Tyson and Nicole,” an AI-driven app inspired by my siblings that will offer personalized life coaching for our users. For example, the application can help a user create a blueprint for self-sufficiency based on data gathered from diverse sources in a particular community, including the local foster care system, as well as data from the world beyond.
Let’s take the case of a user who makes $7.50 per hour and needs to find housing. Their initial goal might be to move into a one bedroom, but AI might uncover that a user’s peers in the community typically share housing with two roommates who make at least $9 hour. It might further advise that the typical food-service worker in the community makes $9 an hour, and that the best opportunities to make this money might come from two part-time jobs, rather than one full-time job.
In this sense, AI is the ultimate third-party coach. It can help youth gain the information they need to level the playing field. Or to use a different metaphor, AI helps youth coming out of foster care play with the same number of cards as those held by their peers who grew up in stable homes and the care of their biological parents.
Tyson and Nicole did not complete their transition into adulthood. However, they will live on in the form of an AI that reflects their personalities and coach youth as they transition into adulthood. Every young person can thrive into adulthood with the right support system.
If you want to get involved with Think of Us, and lend us some of your coding or database skills, we would love to hear from you. We are looking for someone with past experience in artificial intelligence (AI) as we look to combine our own AI with open source offerings to create a well-rounded first version to test in our pilot sites. Feel free to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or our website, at thinkof-us.org. And if you want to take a closer look at the capabilities of AI systems, a good first stop is the Intel AI site, at intel.com/ai.
Sixto Cancel is the CEO and founder of Think of Us, a non-profit organization dedicated to innovating with data, technology and multimedia to serve vulnerable populations. Sixto has been named Forbes Top 30 under 30 Social Entrepreneurs and a White House Champion of Change.
 Courtney, M., Dworsky, A., Brown, A., Cary, C., Love, K., and Vorhies, V. (2011). Midwest evaluation of the adult functioning of former foster youth: Outcomes at age 26. Chicago, IL: Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.