What responsibility do technologists have for the technology they create? That was the subject of a Harvard Kennedy School panel that included expert technologists, scholars, and civil rights advocates.

The conversation featured Ash Carter, Belfer Professor of Technology and Global Affairs and director of the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs; Latanya Sweeney, professor of government and technology in residence at Harvard and director of Harvard’s Data Privacy Lab; Vanita Gupta, president and CEO The Leadership Conference, a civil rights advocacy coalition; and Reid Hoffman, co-founder and executive chairman of LinkedIn. Harvard Kennedy School lecturer in public policy David Eaves, an expert on technology and government, moderated the conversation.

Sweeney, a computer scientist who has served as chief technologist at the Federal Trade Commission, became interested in public interest technology while in graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There she learned that health data collection methods made it possible for patients to be identified without their knowledge. She studied this problem and contributed to the development of de-identification provisions in health care legislation. “Technology is the new policymaker,” Sweeney observed. “We don’t vote for the people in Silicon Valley. Most of the time we don’t even know their names. But the arbitrary decisions they make in the technology they design dictate how we live our lives.”

Carter, who previously served as the U.S. secretary of defense, started his career in theoretical physics. He explained that his scientific mentors, who were of the Manhattan Project generation, took responsibility for their powerful inventions and that they “didn’t just stop with the bomb. They invented arms control, nonproliferation, missile defense, civil defense, reactor safety. They didn't just talk about it or be ethical about it, they invented.” Emphasizing the need to invent good policy solutions and consider the implications of technology, Carter said that many people are working on driverless cars, but fewer are thinking about what to do about the “carless driver.”

Hoffman, who is a technologist and Silicon Valley investor, emphasized the importance of designing systems that help both societies and individuals. As a student at Stanford University, he was driven by the question, “How do we help humanity evolve at scale?” Hoffman noted that, in conversations about how to hold technology companies accountable for their actions, it can be counterproductive to demonize these companies and that there are some ways in which the industry has become more accountable over time. Hoffman has worked on technology projects with a public interest focus, including initiatives related to veterans’ employment, and has served on the U.S. government’s Defense Innovation Board.

As president of a large civil rights coalition and as a civil rights lawyer, Gupta argued that civil rights principles should guide the development of technology and that there is a need for “more civil rights voices at the table” so that “we stop replicating decades of bias and injustice, and use technology, which is obviously a force for good, to be that force for good while preventing and mitigating the harms.” In discussing the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley, Gupta said, “It’s a real problem, and it’s a detriment to these companies, which often see themselves as deeply progressive and yet have these incredible blinders on.”

While the panelists spent much of the conversation discussing the challenges of implementing effective policy to protect people’s rights and serve the public interest, the discussion ended on a note of hope. Carter observed, “My experience over many decades of running technology projects is that mission spurs innovation. Making the world better, and making things truly just, and making public interest technology real, that’s a challenge that’s intellectually exciting. Mission motivates.” Eaves added to Carter’s message: “There’s a lot going on in the world, but it’s an exciting time. We have huge challenges, and I think that right now we're trying to articulate a mission around how we enable technology to serve us as a society, and not just us as individuals or us as companies, and I think that that is an exciting mission.” Speaking to the audience, Eaves added, “I hope that the flag of public interest technology is one that some of you will want to pick up.”

The discussion, titled “Crossing the Chasm: Why Now is the Time for Public Interest Technology,” was held at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum on October 12.

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