Privacy breaches. Unconscious bias. Election manipulation. Digital divides. The technology sector has had some missteps over the last few years, leading to 2018 being dubbed the year of the Techlash by the Financial Times.
On the surface, things don’t seem to have changed since then. Barely a week into 2020, Facebook refused to either fact-check political ads or limit how they can be targeted; going back into 2019, a CEO was duped by an artificial intelligence program to fraudulently transfer over a quarter of a million dollars to an account run by criminals; a study published in December found that facial recognition software programs are consistently far less accurate at identifying African-American and Asian faces than they are with Caucasian.
Yet there is a sense amongst those in the technology industry of wanting to, in the words of global inclusion strategist Debra Ruh, “stand for more than profits.” In her eyes, “technology is a powerful equalizer for people. However, if the technology and communications are not accessible or inclusively designed, the digital divide widens, society loses.”
As CEO of a consultancy that helps global brands become more inclusive, Ruh’s focus is on breaking down barriers to communities that have traditionally been disenfranchised, such as those with disabilities. Her points, however, are applicable across the entire spectrum of society, echoing those made by VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger when he said “I believe we have an opportunity to drive positive impact at mass-scale over the next decade, both as individuals and by working together as a global community.”
Both Gelsinger and Ruh are referring to the concept of tech for good. It’s the idea that technology, as Xavier Gomez, co-founder and COO of machine learning business INVYO, says, “can redesign our society for the best of everyone. Companies such as VMware are prioritising the social and environmental impact of their actions, setting a global example for what our future should be.”
It’s not just a snappy headline. For Dr Sally Eaves, a professor in advanced technologies and strategic advisor on digital transformation, “advancing tech for good is a global imperative that must be deeply embedded across values, culture and technology design, development and application. VMware continues to demonstrate leadership in this, having already achieved carbon neutrality and thus modelling a template for sustainable and scalable action.”
So, how do we achieve that? Firstly, it requires an understanding that technology is inherently neutral, and “it is the way it is applied that makes the difference,” says Danielle Guzman. “When we look at the breadth of technology today from AI to automation, there is so much potential to do good.”
That does require an understanding of the potential impact of technology if left unchecked. The emergency of AI and machine learning, of automation, brings with it significant ethical challenges, as well as potential improvement. “AI capabilities are extremely powerful and hold the potential to be a positive, progressive tool in helping to create a healthy and sustainable future,” explains Ronald van Loon, an expert in data science. “However, ethics and responsible AI must stand as the pillars for technological evolution both now and especially in the future. It’s our obligation as companies, technology vendors, domain experts, data scientists, and business leaders to work together towards this unifying objective and serve as advocates for the role of ethics and responsible AI in helping to build a more sustainable world. VMware’s commitment to reducing the environmental demands of its Blockchain solution is a strong example of this working in practice.”
This means that, in order to use tech for good, there needs to be a conscious effort on the part of all involved, whether individuals, state, or corporations, to act responsibly. As Dr Eaves says, “it must…be aligned to context so what encompasses a tech for good commitment should be personalised by individual and organisation, whilst involving all stakeholders in its evolution.”
Digital transformation advisor Antonio Grasso certainly believes in its value: “We are living in a fascinating time where technology is elevating us towards a better human being: a more aware and responsible person. Technology is fostering this progress and is empowering our ability to build our future through innovation and now we must shift to make this innovation sustainable.”
For Joe Baguley, vice president and CTO for VMware in EMEA, that means self-regulation. In an article on Data Economy, he says “no longer can business success be judged solely on growth and profitability – the associated impact on society and the environment must also be measured and controlled. The technology industry must be held accountable…That means smart tech businesses need to start applying good governance and getting their houses in order.”
It requires the industry to, in the words of Baguley “think differently, act differently, and connect differently.” Do that, and the potential results are immense. As Spiros Margaris, venture capitalist and founder of Margaris Ventures, says “It has to be our utmost focus to drive technology innovation with a “Tech For Good” approach in mind. It is in our all interest to enable technology to provide humankind with a better future.”