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Techonomy Virtual Day One: How Tech Is Making the World More Ethical

And so it begins. Monday kicked off day one of the weeklong Techonomy Virtual: Reset + Restore, aka Five Days on How Tech Is Changing Everything. Today we heard about the climate crisis from Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, about the social impact of blending physical and virtual worlds from Yennie Solheim of Niantic, how IBM thinks about tech and ethics with its Chief Privacy Officer Christina Montgomery, and AI as a tool for equality with Katica Roy, CEO of Pipeline. Here’s what it was like to be a fly on the virtual wall.

2 p.m.Bill McKibben on How Tech Can Help Climate Crisis

“If I was going to summarize the one word that I think will characterize today’s discussions, it would be ‘justice’,” says Techonomy founder David Kirkpatrick as he begins his conversation with McKibben. The environmental activist and veteran writer says when it comes to the climate he sees a bad news/good news situation.

On the one hand, 2020 could end up the hottest year on record, especially worrying and unprecedented considering there is no El Niño in the Pacific Ocean this year. And ultimately global temperatures could still rise by as much as 3.5 degrees Celsius, which would be globally catastrophic. But the good news is that “there are big, powerful movements that didn’t exist 10 years ago and they’re beginning to…check the power of the fossil fuel industry that dominates our politics,” McKibben says. “The first key thing for progress is getting the fossil fuel industry out of the way.”

But he expressed cautious optimism that we could make the radical changes in society–especially by a radical shift towards renewable energy–that can prevent the worst impacts of global warming. He said even meeting the 1.5 degree target of the Paris Accords wouldn’t be good enough if we want to prevent disastrously extreme weather changes.

My key takeaway? “Reality is real,” McKibben says. “Speed really matters when you’re dealing with reality.” Whether that be COVID or climate change, both issues are moving faster than we know how to catch it, and according to McKibben the way to start changing that is by dismantling the fossil fuel industry. Its pernicious impact goes beyond climate, he said: “One function of a fossil fuel economy has been to exacerbate inequality in..wealth and power.”

2:41 p.m.Yennie Solheim on the Social Impact of Blending Physical and Virtual Worlds

Solheim starts telling us about how Niantic’s Pokémon GO game epitomizes the company’s goal—to get people outside, to exercise and interact with others. She is here to discuss the social impact of blending physical and virtual worlds: “When people get together over a shared interest, a lot of really great things happen.”

Games like Pokémon GO and Niantic’s earlier game Ingress can introduce people to neighbors, help them make new friends and even sometimes their future spouse! And in the time of COVID, it helps people connect with each other and form a larger community through gameplay, despite social isolation. 

“When we launched Pokémon GO, it was finally proof that people could tangibly see that this kind of technology can work,” Solheim says. “It’s a technological overlay of the real world.”

“How can we use the enthusiasm of Pokémon GO to encourage even more positive change in the world?” Solheim asks. Pokémon GO has really just scratched the surface of what augmented reality can enable. Solheim mentions that technology like this could help researchers learn more about bird species, for example, or allow crowdsourcing of climate change information.

The company’s social impact efforts include support for Black Lives Matter. All the revenue from this year’s Pokémon GO fest, an upcoming 48-hour virtual festival, will go toward local organizations around the country helping rebuild Black communities, as well as toward funding Black creators. “And that’s really just the start,” Solheim says.

2:59 p.m.Christina Montgomery on How IBM Thinks About Tech and Ethics

“It’s a fascinating role,” Montgomery says about being IBM’s chief privacy officer, as we launch into the session on IBM and ethics. Fascinating indeed, but not without challenges, such as how to keep technology, and purveyors of it accountable, and how to ensure users can trust the technology to be mindful of their personal information.

“The way we think about privacy at IBM comes down to trust,” Montgomery says. But she acknowledged that privacy’s definition is hard to pin down, especially given how much attitudes change depending on where you live in the world. And new tools quickly now becoming normalized, like facial recognition, call into question the very possibility of privacy. That’s one reason IBM recently announced that they will no longer support facial recognition technology– it too often perpetuates bias.

Montgomery chairs the IBM AI Ethics Board, and the company also recently announced a Tech Ethics Lab at the University of Notre Dame. It will be a place to research ethics around emerging technologies, such as AI. The goal is to help ensure that those who make it, and perhaps those who use it, understand the impact it can have on society.

3:21 p.m.Katica Roy on AI as a Tool for Equality

As the day’s last session begins, we continue on a related theme: AI as a tool for equality. “At this moment there’s the opportunity to actually leverage artificial intelligence to ensure that we are not only continuing to make progress on gender equity, but actually catapulting us forward,” says Pipeline’s Katica Roy.

But to achieve equality, AI needs to take into account intersectionality (all the related factors that contribute to social disadvantage). “We’re gender-first, not gender-only, so gender plus race and ethnicity and age,” Roy says of her software company Pipeline. She says one telling statistic is that women with children under 18 are the primary breadwinners in 40 percent of U.S. households: “On average, their pay gap [versus men] is 66 cents on the dollar. But if you look at Black breadwinner moms…their pay gap is 44 cents on the dollar, and they support the majority of all Black children. That’s why intersectionality matters, and why we have to take a gender-plus-race-and-ethnicity-and-age view.”

But, she continued, “One of the things that we have discovered is that you can’t close the pay gap by starting with pay…Pay is the symptom, it’s not the disease.” That’s why Pipeline’s software helps companies insure they are not exhibiting bias in how they evaluate performance and potential.

The technology reads and calls out biased phrasing in performance reviews using natural language processing. It demonstrates women are underrated 4 percent of the time. That impacts pay and ability to move up. “We have the opportunity…to use AI as a tool for good, to actually advance equity,” she says.

3:41 p.m.

As the program wraps, Kirkpatrick, Techonomy CEO Josh Kampel and Techonomy Chairman Jim McCann (founder of 1-800-FLOWERS) came on screen together to discuss the day. McCann has a key takeaway: “When corporate America gets behind an issue…great things happen. And it’s not by legislation. It’s because… it’s in everybody’s best interest and moral interest.” He said the four sessions we had just heard made him “wonder if there’s an approaching tipping point.”

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