Can Philanthropy and Government Work Together to Drive Socially Responsible Tech?

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Technology, whether in the form of stone axes or cell phones, has always been part of human life and society, for better or for worse. Recently, people have begun asking how technology can be developed such that it falls more predictably on the "for better" side of the fence. This is particularly evident as certain advances — think AI, facial recognition, biotech or eerily invasive online advertising algorithms — seem to disproportionately benefit a small number of companies and interests, with the bulk of society gaining little or even losing out.

In this climate, a few philanthropic funders have been working to promote the notion that the process of technology development should incorporate social responsibility as a fundamental design parameter from the start, rather than as a grudgingly tolerated afterthought.

Such prosocial technology development has been gaining traction over the last decade or so. Inside Philanthropy's Mike Scutari wrote a great overview of the nascent field of public interest technology, highlighting philanthropy's central role. The Ford Foundation, in particular, has been an early and important proponent of public interest technology. In 2019, Ford earmarked $50 million for its Public Interest Technology Catalyst Fund. It also directed some of the PIT Catalyst Fund money to the Public Interest Technology Infrastructure Fund, a collaborative giving vehicle that invests in organizations committed to creating broadly beneficial and equitable technology infrastructure. Besides Ford, its backers include Melinda French Gates’ Pivotal Ventures, Schmidt Futures, the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation and the Siegel Family Endowment.

More recently, the U.S. National Science Foundation got into public interest technology, announcing a new $16 million funding program to "prioritize ethical and social considerations in emerging technologies.” The program, uncatchily but descriptively titled Responsible Design, Development and Deployment of Technologies (ReDDDot), "aims to help create technologies that promote the public's wellbeing and mitigate potential harm."

The ReDDDot funding is mostly public money, but it's partially supported by the same set of philanthropic players behind the Public Interest Technology Fund — the Ford Foundation, the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, Pivotal Ventures, Siegel Family Endowment, and the Eric and Wendy Schmidt Fund for Strategic Innovation. In fact, philanthropic resources through the collaborative PIT Infrastructure Fund mentioned above were used in the ReDDDot partnership with the NSF.

I talked about the new NSF program with Patrick J. McGovern Foundation President Vilas Dhar, who has long been interested in how best to keep technology's impact on society positive.

The effective design and deployment of technology— AI, for example — is partly a technology conversation, but that’s not all, Dhar said. "There's a second part of that conversation that's critical, which includes questions like, what happens when these technologies are deployed? What does it mean for communities that are facing vulnerability? How does it change their ways to access services? How does it create new problems? And that's really underexplored. So for me, that's really what this NSF program is about."  

The ReDDDot program, Dhar said, could help address these issues by bringing together holders of technological capacity, such as academic institutions, with civil society institutions that work with communities.

The NSF says ReDDDot will look to bake public interest into the lifecycle of tech development via measures like soliciting public input during the research and design process and incorporating community values into products and technologies. It will also seek to engage academic and professional voices in the tech creation lifecycle, the better to support ethical and prosocial design. The program is now inviting proposals from multidisciplinary, multisector teams that demonstrate these responsible design principles, particularly in technologies specified in the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022. The initial areas of focus for 2024 include artificial intelligence, biotechnology and "natural and anthropogenic disaster prevention or mitigation."

A central part of the process of creating public interest technology must happen at the universities and institutions that train engineers and other technologists, said Jenny Toomey, director of Ford's $50 million Catalyst Fund for public interest technology. "The Catalyst Fund was an initiative to try to figure out the infrastructure that would allow for technologists to be trained across all the disciplines to change how tech is designed and deployed," she said. "If we can actually prove that training people in public interest technology at universities will give technologists more job options and career paths, then the universities will institutionalize it."

In the simplest analysis, it’s worth noting that the ReDDDot program serves as the government’s validation of the still-emerging field of public interest tech design. And bringing more government funding toward public interest technology issues — the NSF is one of the largest funders of research in the U.S. — has been one of the main goals of the philanthropic partners.

Similarly, the private sector, which develops and fields so much of the technology and products that affect real people out in the world, will also need to bring in more prosocial technology development thinking, said Michelle Shevin, a senior program manager with Ford's Technology and Society team. "Lots of times, we find there are public interest technologists working inside private sector companies who are fighting for mindshare, fighting for budget and fighting for prioritization with their leadership," she said. “While the $16 million for ReDDDot is not a huge amount of money, it is a signal to the private sector, just like it's a signal to the research community, just like it's a signal to other sectors, that public interest design is of increasing importance.”

What should be clear by now is that people — the public, the users, all of us — should have some say in the pervasive technology that impacts our lives. But the developers and deployers of that technology have obviously not always had everyone's interests at heart, particularly over the long term. That’s left many wary of technology, even as we depend on it.

"There's almost a yo-yo-ing between this naive optimism that technology will fix everything and then this fear-based narrative that technologies are going to destroy everything we care about," said Dhar of the McGovern Foundation. "And in the middle, what's missing is who's making those productive investments into building the kinds of technologies that actually promote human welfare, and that actually solve problems."