Technological innovation is a defining pinnacle of today’s world. New ideas, products, services, and systems are being developed faster than ever before and at an exponentially increasing rate of progress. Artificial intelligence, machine learning, computer vision, natural language processing, big data, blockchain, virtual/augmented/mixed reality, and connected products (IoT) are just a few of the emerging, revolutionizing technical waves that everyone is trying to ride. Competition to stay ahead of the curve is fierce, and the impact is extremely disruptive. However, this disruption is not isolated to the technology community: there are obvious societal, political, and economic divisions that do partially result from these technological shifts.
It’s critical to understand that as a society, we are making amazing advances in all of these areas—such as utilizing technology to improve healthcare diagnoses, to name one major contemporary effort—but these benefits are not shared equally and inclusively across different population subgroups. This can have dire consequences.
On January 17, 2019, The New York Times published this corporate responsibility article entitled “Microsoft Pledges $500 Million for Affordable Housing in Seattle Area.” As a disclaimer prior to my critique, this IS a very commendable endeavor, as are the additional charitable resolutions other companies mentioned in the article are voluntarily committing themselves to uphold. This section, in particular, offers a positive outlook for companies acknowledging the impact tech has had on communities and how they can and will strive for corrective action:
The move is the most ambitious effort yet by a tech company to fund construction for local teachers, firefighters and other middle- and low-income residents. Microsoft has been at the vanguard of warning about the potential negative effects of technology, like privacy or the unintended consequences of artificial intelligence. Executives hope the housing efforts will spur other companies to follow its lead.
“We believe everybody has a role to play, and everybody needs to play their role,” said Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer.
Though these missions are generous, they don’t target solving the core issues that have contributed to creating such extreme societal disparities in the first place, nor do they offer long-term protections or advancement opportunities for local service providers who are crucial industry partners. Teachers, firefighters, farmers, childcare providers, journalists, and so many others are absolutely essential to creating the infrastructure that enables the tech sector to endure at all, yet they seem to be left aside on the road to technological progress and forced to focus on basic survival. We cannot just slap a band-aid on the public wound and hope that the systemic problems resolve themselves. Instead, what's being done to include people in a way where they can join, contribute to, or leverage the tech communities and new skills, so the population, as a whole, is actually better off in the long run? These types of issues are what we must get to the heart of so we can be proactive about designing fundamental solutions, rather than reacting to the unintended ramifications that we cause.
This is the challenge but will also be the greatest source of triumph if we get it right. Companies are starting to pioneer the field from this vantage point, such as with Amazon’s program to teach 10 million kids per year to code. However, we must prioritize more extensive training, education, and skills development outreach to be more inclusive with the labor force—and not just within any single industry like the tech industry, but with benefits such as a universal basic income that empower people to diversify their career paths—and with the aim of avoiding similar negative societal spirals in the future.
Rodney Sampson, Executive Chairman & CEO of Opportunity Hub, spoke on a panel for “Inclusive Work: Ensuring Prosperity in the Digital Age” at MIT’s AI and the Future of Work Congress in November 2018. Out of such an impressive group of speakers, his dynamism still stands out in my mind. One of his main observations included a four-tiered recommendation for how to foster a versatile, inclusive workforce, especially in relation to the rapidly-evolving tech sector:
1 - Exposure: find ways to make information available so all people are aware of and understand current trends and how they can participate in and benefit from them.
2 - Training: focus education on relevant skills and job preparedness.
3 - Access: create a range of job opportunities for people to gain direct experience and advance their careers; train HR companies to recognize where current skills can be leveraged for emerging roles.
4 - Entrepreneurship: provide capital for new ideas from diverse sources.
We need to be thinking about supporting communities up-front to adapt to the pace of change, rather than implementing tech initiatives and trying to compensate after the fact when negative outcomes arise. Such a shift has the potential to better the lives of workers, help companies achieve their bottom lines, and strengthen our economy and society, as we know there are labor gaps that need filling in order to accelerate progress.
Technology does not exist in a bubble. To Brad Smith’s point above, we all have the responsibility of focusing on inclusion from the start of every endeavor, to better set ourselves up for shared success in the future.