Initiatives relying on artificial intelligence (AI) to deliver socially beneficial outcomes—AI for social good (AI4SG)—are on the rise. However, existing attempts to understand and foster AI4SG initiatives have so far been limited by the lack of normative analyses and a shortage of empirical evidence. In this Perspective, we address these limitations by providing a definition of AI4SG and by advocating the use of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a benchmark for tracing the scope and spread of AI4SG. We introduce a database of AI4SG projects gathered using this benchmark, and discuss several key insights, including the extent to which different SDGs are being addressed. This analysis makes possible the identification of pressing problems that, if left unaddressed, risk hampering the effectiveness of AI4SG initiatives.