Solving problems, not machine learning, should be tech industry’s focus, former U.S. CTO says

A day after the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE)’s 2018 Discovery conference kicked off with a robot and her creator extolling the virtues of artificial intelligence (AI), Shift7 CEO Megan Smith told attendees the industry should be moving in the opposite direction.

And at a rapid-fire pace Smith, who served as U.S. CTO under former U.S. president Barack Obama’s administration between 2014 and 2017, ran through numerous examples of the industry doing just that, from highlighting Obama’s efforts to improve Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education in the U.S., to international examples of startups making a difference in their communities, to highlighting women who have contributed to the industry.

But private industry was conspicuously absent from Smith’s most concrete examples, giving her speech the air of a call to action.

“One of the exciting things we were able to do with [Obama] was bring people from the tech sector into government,” she said. “The idea was not that tech people know more or less… but they knew their thing. And so you add a chair, just like you have a surgeon general or a chief economist.”

“We don’t want people to be afraid of the future,” she said. “It’s one of the greatest challenges that we have.”

Through education

Among the Obama-era education initiatives that Smith highlighted was an annual science fair for elementary school-age students, who designed projects such as a page-turning robot constructed from Lego bricks.

“They were understanding that technology was for helping people,” Smith said. “They were doing it with each other. They were dressed in capes.”

“Can you imagine if you were a kindergartener or in first grade and it was a school activity to work with your friends?” she said. “Where would we be in terms of STEM and solutions in our world?”

After all, she said, you don’t invite children to gym class, tell them they’re going to learn hockey, and invite them to open their textbooks. You practice the sport with them – and it should be the same when it comes to learning about STEM.

Through mentorship

One change in technology education that could help inspire the children of the future is “resetting the agenda,” Smith said, by teaching them about the many contributions women have made to the field instead of focusing only on men.

For example, aviation pioneers Wilbur and Orville Wright’s mother, Susan Catherine Koerner, was an inventor in her own right, building simple appliances for herself and mechanical toys for her children, and offering assistance and advice on their work.

Also mentioned was English mathematician and writer Ada Lovelace, who published the first computing algorithm in the 1840s and is now widely considered the first computer programmer.

Another was American computer scientist and United States Navy rear admiral Grace Hopper, whom Smith said invented the first compiler (computer software that translates code from one programming language into another) and popularized the idea of machine-independent programming languages.

“The system we have right now accelerates certain kids, and really decelerates other people. And it’s based on unfair things,” Smith said. “None of us created this problem, but we inherited it, and… we can make sure that the little girls don’t get decelerated because of it.”

Through action

Finally, Smith discussed her “social tech” company’s work with the United Nations on building the organization’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which include such technology-related aspirations as “industry, innovation and infrastructure” and “clean water and sanitation”.

Before unveiling the goals last September, Smith said, organizers created a website in August soliciting examples of technology being used to help people around the world – and received 800 submissions from 100 countries in two weeks.

One was Oxford, England-based BioCarbon Engineering, which uses drones to plant 1 billion trees per year.

Another was the Floating Fab Lab a 3D printing based manufacturing space on the world’s second-longest river founded by Peru native Beno Juarez.

“Imagine it – running off the dock into a 3D printing and advanced manufacturing space,” Smith said. “What would the talent that lives in the Amazon do with that kind of capacity?”

Bringing it all together

Near the end of her presentation, Smith was asked for her thoughts on Facebook’s recent Cambridge Analytica scandal, and said that it’s important to remember that technology is neither good nor bad; only a tool.

“Sometimes when you’re designing things… you have very idealistic ideas for how it’s going to be used, but then it gets weaponized, which is what happened there,” she said. “You should be able to own your digital self – your digital footprint out in the world should be you, and you should have some component of say about that.”

“But… the challenge is not to over-regulate, and hurt these platforms which are quite extraordinary… for communities,” she added, noting that one thing she loves about entrepreneurs – and here it’s worth noting that Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg runs a technology-for-good initiative of his own – is “they’ll usually pay it forward.”

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Eric Emin Wood
Eric Emin Wood
Former IT World Canada associate editor turned consultant with public relations firm Porter Novelli. When not writing for the tech industry enjoys photography, movies, travelling, the Oxford comma, and will talk your ear off about animation if you give him an opening.

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