Over the years, technology has undoubtedly done more good for humanity than bad — we are on the cusp of half the world moving into the middle class and having access to internet by 2019. Despite this boom, big tech is failing expectations, and its fall from grace is a wakeup call.
Sexual harassment problems, tax evasion questions, election meddling, data privacy issues and questionable business practices are all raising the notion that the major tech companies are “too big to let be.” Employee activism too is on the rise, pushing issues like diversity, inclusion, transparency, ethical coding, and weaponization of artificial intelligence to the top of management agenda. All of this points to the need for the industry to realize that with great power comes great responsibility.
Curiosity and greed continue to fuel innovation, but optimism is subject to a smart regulatory framework that ensures benefits reach the majority and are not limited to a select few. Central to all this working out in meaningful and sustainable ways is trust, the single biggest imperative for the industry (and dare I say, society) as a whole.
Policy frameworks that provide the foundation for technologies to do good and protect from harm demand robust public-private engagement. Collaboration holds the key.
In a world of distrust, business is expected to lead. So what can the industry do to nurture trust? “Brands are now being pushed beyond their classic business interests to become advocates for a better society,” says Edelman president and CEO Richard Edelman. Earning trust also demands brands act with purpose and take a stand on issues that speak to their values. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals provide 17 such options for companies to choose from and embrace:
At Techonomy2018, I came across several organizations that are doing interesting work and could be potential partners to further businesses’ sustainable goals:
Water crisis: Currently the single biggest challenge facing the planet. Seven hundred million people could be displaced by 2030 in search of water. There is an opportunity to use technology for data capturing, analytics and AI to better manage this scarce resource. Circle of Blue unites traditional journalism, data literacy and transformative connectivity to solve the water scarcity challenge.
Job displacement and the future of work: There is an opportunity to partner with organizations like The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) in training the future workforce with vital skills. This is particularly relevant for companies working with emerging technology such as AI and automation.
Global talent: There are five open jobs for every software developer looking for one, and by 2020, more than 1.4 million jobs are forecasted to go unfulfilled in the United States. Andela invests in Africa’s most talented software engineers to help companies solve the technical talent shortage and build high-performing distributed engineering teams.
CBS news reported that autism affects 1 of every 41 children in the United States – a significant increase from previous decades. Neurodiversity helps gainfully employ special talent capable of better-than-average rational thinking, sustained focus and pattern recognition. ULTRA Testing invests in better understanding their potential and shifting a company’s mindset from nice-to-do, to embracing this talent as an asset for specialized roles driving competitive advantage.
Hunger and food security: The U.N.’s World Food Program partners with companies like Ericsson, a good example of a public-private initiative supplementing emergency services following a natural disaster.
But the issue of trust is not limited to big tech only. Emerging technologies like AI, IoT, drones, blockchain, and autonomous everything are raising new questions around the need for regulation, impact on jobs and equality at large.
According to Fei-Fei Li (who I admire), former chief AI scientist at Google and Director at Stanford AI Lab, “If we make fundamental changes to how AI is engineered – and who engineers it – the technology will be a transformative force for good. If not, we are leaving a lot of humanity out of the equation. Deep learning systems are bias in, bias out. What matters is the people building it and why they were building it. We still don’t have enough women, and especially underrepresented minorities. There is hope for how AI could evolve. It could be built to complement people’s skills rather than simply replace them. But this requires greater engagement and collaboration with people in other disciplines (even people in the real world!).”
To survive in this global village, we may need to go beyond IQ and EQ and embrace RQ (Robotics Quotient, or the ability to complement or co-exist with machines).
All said, I am an eternal optimist in the power of tech to do good. So I want to end with an example of what’s possible when government and industry collaborate to get it right. This is how Tokyo will use technology to transform the 2020 Olympics:
- The Games will be powered with 100 percent renewable energy (wind and solar will power stadiums and Athletes Village)
- Old phones will be turned into medals – 80,000 phones and devices containing small amounts of gold, silver and copper will help create 5,000 medals
- Tokyo will feature autonomous taxis for guests and solar roads with solar panels covered in resin so traffic can drive on them
- Robots will translate Japanese for foreign guests and carry bags for disabled people and elderly
Sounds more like TechnOlympics, and I can’t wait to see it all in action!
Sanjay Nair is global sector chair, Technology.