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In an energized discussion at Solve at MIT on May 7, three thought leaders from diverse backgrounds—the United Nations, academia, and the corporate world—kicked off the event with “Tech for Equality,” the opening plenary of Solve at MIT.
With Stephanie Mehta, Editor-in-Chief of Fast Company, playing the role of moderator, Alaa Murabit, UN High-Level Commissioner: Health Employment and Economic Growth; Joi Ito, Director of the MIT Media Lab; and Mark Reuss, President of General Motors, debated the ways in which society can thoughtfully design and deploy technology to address inequality.
Reuss started the conversation by exploring the broader role that corporations can play in this work. Notably, GM is focused on expanding the benefits of automobiles and the freedom of mobility they provide. “Through autonomous vehicles, GM seeks to expand access to mobility—despite age or disability—in a landfill-free, sustainable way,” said Reuss. GM calls this mission “zero crashes, zero emissions, zero congestion.”
Reuss used the Flint, Michigan water crisis as an example. For years, contaminated tap water forced Flint city residents to drink bottled water. “We took most of those plastic bottles and made car parts from them,” he said with a note of pride. “Things like engine covers, air cleaners... That zero-zero-zero vision is really important, and it gives people a real reason to make meaningful change.”
Murabit also spoke about getting more people involved in driving change. “Tech can be a huge motivator in terms of getting people engaged in health,” she said, reflecting on her work at the UN.
However, “in the vast majority of the world, 75 percent of technology is in the hands of young men,” said Murabit. “For example, even though there is significant penetration of mobile phones in India, that penetration does tend to be isolated to a specific group. So when you take that into consideration, it increases inequality.”
Murabit noted the importance of local access to health innovation and ensuring that technology works for everyone. Otherwise, things won’t change as quickly as we want—or need.
Ito then dove into his own view of tech and inequality—particularly around the use of machine learning and AI. “The markets have become exceedingly short-term and less supportive of long-term investment in social infrastructure,” he said.
“Prediction is great when it’s an autonomous vehicle trying to avoid an accident, but short-termism in the criminal justice system is: find the criminals that we think are dangerous now, deploy the police, and incarcerate them now,” said Ito.
To work to counter this short-term thinking, Ito asked, “Can we look at a whole system like a community and do a longitudinal study on what’s causing crime? How do all these systems relate to each other?”
On the topic of long-term versus short-term thinking, the discussion shifted back to GM’s social responsibility as a publicly traded company. When it comes to using water bottles to create car parts, do shareholders reward that sort of behavior?
“No,” Reuss said bluntly. “Shareholders don’t reward us for lots of things, which is part of the industry’s problem.”
Ultimately, Reuss said it’s all about “responsible capitalism,” in which companies make decisions that are right in both the long and short term—leading to company growth and opportunities for employees. Reuss said that’s a core belief at GM. “Frankly, we owe it as a company to create that [opportunity].”
When it comes to deploying new technologies around the world, Murabit stressed that one of the biggest challenges is that tech is often imported and “piloted out on communities that either don’t know the tech or have never had access to it,” she explained. “If the people who are most impacted by the solution are not the first people at the table, then the solution is more or less irrelevant.”
“Tech is a wonderful medium to amplify effective solutions. It’s a wonderful way to reach more people,” Murabit continued. “But if you’re not actually looking at the underlying cultural, social, economic, or political nuances, tech cannot answer those [questions] for you.”