Public Interest Technology: Closing the Innovation Risk Gap, Part 2

Roland Alston, Thought Leadership Program Leader
August 19, 2021

Look around and you’ll see the benefits of hyperautomation everywhere as it scales business processes faster than a speeding algorithm, takes the friction out of customer engagement, and drives business transformation to the moon and back. 

In the long run, this trend will likely create a new generation of jobs. But in the short term, it may also raise anxiety among workers fearing job loss amid the post-COVID hyperautomation boom. To put this anxiety into perspective:

  • Research shows 43% of businesses plan to reduce their workforce via technology integration. But 34% plan to expand jobs for the same reason according to the World Economic Forum
  • By 2022, 65% of organizations that deployed robotic process automation will introduce artificial intelligence, machine learning, and natural language processing algorithms according to Gartner.

So, how can businesses mitigate fear of automation? And if they can do that, how can business leaders ensure the net-benefit of hyperautomation over time outweighs short-term pain? Which brings us to the final episode of this two-part conversation with Michelle Shevin, Senior Program Manager, Technology and Society at the Ford Foundation (@michebox).

Becoming complacent with the astonishing evolution of hyperautomation could be like falling asleep at the wheel of a self-driving car, says Shevin. Better to automate without losing the human touch. Better to integrate people and machines to complement each other. And better to embrace Public Interest Technology (PIT) to mitigate the messiness of algorithms gone bad, future-proof against overregulation, and drive digital equity and inclusion in the age of hyperautomation. Enough said. Let’s roll the tape on this timely conversation with PIT thought leader Michelle Shevin.

Appian:

You’ve talked about PIT as a mindset that can help business leaders anticipate future compliance and regulatory issues related to the human side of technology, things like digital equity, inclusion, and transparency. Would you elaborate on that. 

Shevin:

At its core, public interest tech is a way to future proof against the unintended consequences of technology gone bad, or social consequences that nobody ever thought about in the first place. So, we think PIT really creates a stronger business. And it's not just for your product development teams. It’s for your policy shops and your legal teams. And it really becomes a sort of connective tissue across the business…

“...Because PIT is not just about how we design technology today and how we adapt the technology that we designed yesterday. It's also about looking ahead and preparing to adapt to the challenges coming down the line and anticipating those as well.”

Concerning PIT and the COVID Crisis

Appian:

Speaking of challenges, we're still dealing with the aftershocks of the COVID crisis. I mean, we're not totally out of the woods yet. As you know, COVID caused massive disruption for businesses. And all of this change, including the acceleration of remote work, means businesses have to be more agile. So, as you think about the impact of COVID, how did the pandemic impact businesses’ perception of PIT? 

Shevin:

The really short answer is that COVID proved the business case for PIT. It really accelerated and amplified efforts to drive momentum in this space. The longer answer is that businesses' response to COVID shows why we still need to grow infrastructure in this space. But in areas where we see momentum for PIT, it’s already providing value.

Appian:

Can you give some examples of that?

Shevin:

In the public sector, we’ve seen why PIT is relevant to the vaccine rollout. At the beginning of the rollout, cities and states across the country lacked the digital infrastructure for quick, easy, and efficient vaccine appointment registration, right? This was an issue of equity and not just access.

I think the absence of a strong cross-sector response that could harness the power of technology and limit its harms ended up hindering our response to COVID-19. On the other hand, we saw public interest technologists having an impact around the pandemic through a volunteer effort that dispatched highly qualified teams of technologists to support officials in state and local governments, as they responded to the coronavirus threat.

Counties have been able to step up their digital game in response to the massively increased traffic on their websites. And cities have been able to bring programs online to, for example, help the home-bound get meals. 

“So, it's been incredible to see how a PIT effort was able to come together really quickly and have an incredible impact in terms of increasing public access to things like critical unemployment benefits and other safety nets, and helping states and localities figure out the best approach to vaccine rollouts.”

Appian:

But those aren’t long-term solutions, right? It’s basically all volunteers.

Shevin:

It’s volunteers flooding in to fill critical gaps. But it's a great example of how bringing this PIT frame to the fore and thinking about designing technology with equity and accountability at the forefront can really make an enormous difference.

Schooling Future Technologists

Appian:

Let’s switch gears and talk about an article you recently published in Fast Company magazine, where you reported on something called the PIT university network (PIT-UN). What is that, and how does it relate to the PIT work you’re leading at the Ford Foundation?

Shevin:

It's a specific infrastructure that we've (Ford Foundation) helped set up alongside several of our peer funders. The PIT university network is run by New America, and is a partnership of colleges and universities that are committed specifically to training the next generation of public interest technologists. So, they're taking their computer science and data science majors and making sure that they get exposed to ethics, law, and policy throughout their journey as technologists in training.

Appian:

So, these schools are educating a new cohort of public interest technologists with interdisciplinary training.

Shevin:

Yes, there are now 43 different institutions of higher education in the PIT-UN network. They span state schools and Polytechnic institutes and community colleges and the Ivy league and beyond, which is actually what I really love about the university network. 

The network includes a number of universities that traditionally send a lot of graduates into tech like Stanford and Harvard, but there's an explicit effort to include colleges like Miami Dade College and Howard University and other schools that have large populations of students from historically marginalized communities.

Appian:

So, is that just about trying to do the right thing? What’s the significance of including students from marginalized communities in the PIT movement?

Shevin:

It’s important because we know that including the experiences of diverse students will make the field of PIT and the university network itself so much stronger. These are the students who will become leaders in this field. So, it's really, really exciting to see. 

“And the interdisciplinary knowledge that's being generated through the PIT University Network really allows students within the network institutions to better understand the challenges that technology can either worsen or help us solve.”


Appian:

How are business leaders responding to the PIT trend? And what impact do you think the movement will have on the future of digital transformation?

Shevin:

So, I think big tech and other businesses will continue to hire increasing numbers of public interest technologists with expertise on issues such as civil rights and privacy and security and governance. And when these companies design products and services, we'll have more upsides and fewer downsides, resulting in much stronger technology and businesses overall. 

A Good way to Approach Automation: Cause no Harm

Appian:

Lastly, talk about PIT and the future of business automation. Hyperautomation is driving much of the conversation around business automation. What role do you see PIT playing in the evolution of hyperautomation? 

Shevin:

Hyperautomation has a lot to do with how AI and other tools are being used to automate and scale business processes. So, public interest technologists are focused on helping businesses use AI and automation responsibly. So, we're seeing increasing noise about things like emotion recognition, or technology designed to predict complex things about people's lives or behaviors. We’re also seeing automation of the hiring process with AI being used to analyze video interviews.

Appian:

So, what do you make of these trends from a public interest technologist perspective?

Shevin:

Many of these use-cases are still in the realm of science fiction and for good reason. They’re not scientifically sound, but they’re being implemented anyway, right? So, public interest technologists are really good at cutting through marketing hype to help us concentrate on what technology is actually able to do, and what the likely impacts will be when it's applied inappropriately, or when it promises to do something that it really can't do equitably and then gets applied—and of course, people are harmed.

Sometimes it's Okay to Pump the Brakes on Innovation

Appian:

Let’s stay on that human side of automation for a moment. You’ve said that one of the roles of public interest technologists is to help us build and deploy technology that’s more human-centric. What did you mean by that?

Shevin:

Yes, when everyone's excited about the next big innovation, PIT sometimes encourages us to actually pump the brakes and more closely examine how tech trends can and do harm marginalized communities, and how we can prevent that from happening. 

I read a recent FICO survey that revealed many executives are poorly equipped to ensure the ethical implications of using AI systems. For example, when asked about the standards and processes in place to govern AI usage, only 38% said their companies had data bias detection and mitigation steps in place. And just 6% said that they tried to ensure their development teams are diverse.

So, that’s a really disappointing snapshot of where we're at when it comes to IT governance and of course, hyperautomation governance. We've seen time and time again, how algorithmic bias has already caused real-world harm for marginalized communities, right? We've seen false arrests, increasing surveillance, increasing marginalization of folks who don't have access to systems that may require them to be machine readable or visible to AI systems. So that's really where public interest tech comes in.

Business, at a Crossroads

Appian:

So, when you look over the horizon, what role do you see PIT playing in the future of Business?

Shevin:

Strategically speaking, the private sector is at a crossroads. We've got the spread of misinformation, privacy issues, leaks, hacks. We've got bias in artificial intelligence. We've really seen the public's trust be impacted by all of these issues. And this is especially relevant to the tech industry. Criticism and calls for regulation continue to gain strength. But public officials tend to be ill-equipped to handle the consequences we see playing out around us.

“So, it’s a huge moment for the private sector to step up and take leadership here. And some of this is because although tech companies have top tech talent, they often lack the willingness or expertise to anticipate the downsides of technology and prevent them when creating products and services.”

Instead, they've been playing catch up to create fixes after the damage is already done. I read this interview recently with Satya Nadella from Microsoft, and he made an important point which is that leaders have to worry about the unintended side effects of technology first. And so, companies really risk a bad reputation and bad regulation when they fail to anticipate the downsides of their technology. 

Appian:

So practically speaking, what’s the solution? What's the playbook for doing that? 

Shevin:

So, my pragmatic advice to business leaders is to hire public interest technologists. Consider the consequences of the technology you're building, and make every effort to build and use technology in a way that avoids harming marginalized communities. Consider adopting and incorporating frameworks that help to center the values of trust and accountability like we prioritize cost savings, efficiency, profit, and speed.

PS: (To learn more about public interest technology, read part one of this two-part post here.)

 

Michelle Shevin, Senior Program Manager, Ford Foundation