Ethical Engineers Make More Impactful Technologies

Ethical Engineers Make More Impactful Technologies

How do we measure what works and build it into our next generation of tech?
The following transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for ease of reading.
Mei Lin Fung: Thank you. As you can see people come in all shapes and sizes. And how do we get ready for such a diverse world. In fact, some of what we talking about is 50% of the world are getting connected to the internet already and what do we do to get the other 50%. So I just wonder how many of you have heard of the ITU?
Okay, the ITU is the International Telecoms Union. It’s a U.N. agency that oversees and brings together the ministers of ICT and the regulators of telecoms in all countries. It’s a 153-year-old organization because it came together with the telegraph. So even though we feel like everything’s new now, all of this kind of happened 153 years ago as well. And the ITU was formed because of that and it preceded the U.N. and was incorporated into the U.N.
How many of you have heard of the IEEE? So, this is the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers. It has 500,000 members in 160 countries. These are the people who brought, they formed with electricity. So, I’m bringing the history of how technology has evolved because I think it has relevant ideas for today and I am the co-founder of the People Centered Internet. Which I cofounded with Vint Cerf. Vint Cerf is one of the fathers of the internet and he talks about things like IPV4 which is the protocol version four. And that was the addressable space of what we could talk to with the internet. And if you put all of the internet addresses into a size of a beach ball how big do you think IPV6, the current protocol, how much space can we address now? Volume of the sun. This is a huge transition. We’re at the beginning, the very, very beginning it was mentioned earlier we are just crawling out of the sea for the internet. And we require navigation aids because we cannot take our understanding and intuition that was developed with beach balls to plot a way to the sun.
Sorry about the thing. Anyway, sustainable investment. There’s $34 trillion dollars coming into play. People are interested as the baby boomers like me die off, the millennials are inheriting the wealth and the millennials are demanding social impact. They want to know that their investments are going to create a better world, a better future, and room for future generations. And so somebody, a 20-year veteran of impact investing said, should we have a Hippocratic Oath for impact investing so that we do no harm. Because there has been, in fact, quite a lot of harm done with impact investing. And why is that? So the traditional view of impact investing is that you’ve got different stakeholders as the people doing the projects, people funding the projects and you’ve got U.N. agencies like saying we should do the sustainable development goals. We’ve got the world banks setting metrics. There’s something missing from this picture, the communities who are supposed to be the ultimate beneficiaries. So this is why there is harm going on because if we treat the communities as though they’re just sort of widgets to be experimented on, we are not paying attention to their voices. If we want an inclusive internet, if we want all our good work and our technology to go forward in a good way, we’ve got to have their voices involved in this.
So I was vice chair for Internet Inclusion for the IEEE for the last three years and there are a lot of problems out there and so this is an approach which brings forward something that’s new and different that hasn’t been mentioned today. We’ve talked about governments. We’ve talked about corporations. We’ve talked about NGOs. But what about the technical associations? What about the standards organizations? So Vint Cerf is on the U.N. high level panel for digital cooperation and we are driving for measurements. Imagine the world before we had feet and inches, centimeters and meters. How did we even work out how to build anything? We’re kind of in that world in the area of social impact today. So we need to know how to cooperate. If we want to cooperate we have to have a common language. We have to have common measurements. We have to have the same names for the same things. Julie actually mentioned IPFS which is the Interplanetary File Naming System. This was an idea at the beginning of the internet that we need to have the same names, just like we have a URL, a resource locater, we need an identifier for data. What’s happening today is that the standards organizations are beginning to jump in.
So the ITU has just released a report which is really important for all of you and all of us that care about technology. The ITU is saying what would happen for the telegraph, what happened for the internet, we now need to do for the governments of the world so that they can actually start to automate and provide digital services for their people in a way that can interoperate from the start. Let me just say why that’s important. I took a train from Amsterdam to St. Petersburg. It’s a three-day train ride. In the middle of that we stopped at the Russian border and it was jacked up and they had to change the wheels on every train because the track gauge in Europe and Russia is different. That’s what’s going on right now. All the track gauges are different. There’s no consistency. Consumers, producers, all of us people of the world are paying the price for the lack of cooperation about getting the rail gauges right, the common rails.
So I just want to introduce you to the world of standards. This is some of the IEEE standards. There’s 700 standards. The ITU standards and so standards organizations have been part of working out what are the common gauges that we need to have. And so it’s not about somebody starting a new consortium to cooperate, this has been going on for 153 years. It had to happen for electricity. It had to happen for the telegraph. Now it has to happen for the internet. And what do we start with because we are engineers, let’s name things by the same name. So I’m just going to start with number three which is there are many formulas, algorithms that people are using and they’re buried in papers or done inside corporations. We don’t know what their names are. The IEEE’s stepping up to curate and gate-keep formulas, logic models, processes. The other pieces if you actually want to measure social impact, you have to know what was the baseline. What did it start with? How much income were you projecting for Kenyans in 2025 before you do your intervention? That data is being projected by the world bank, by the IMF, by the EU, by the OECD, all of them supposed to be the same numbers but they aren’t the same numbers and they’re all called the same thing. So how do we know what people are referring to? It means we can’t compare, we can’t learn together. So this is the final, oh sorry, I actually need to say one more thing. The data usage principle is the most important because we’ve seen with Wall Street and analysts that it’s impossible, if somebody wants an answer I can find the formula, I can find the data and I can give you the answer you want. We can’t allow that because we have to make sure that communities can speak up. What worked in the Hindu community cannot work in the Muslim community and here’s why. So we need to have review processes so that we understand the impact of technology on our lives. So weaving the fabric of social impact investors incredibly important now that essentially trillions of dollars are going to flow in if we don’t have the metrics to make sure that humanity is at the middle of it, we are wasting a tremendous opportunity. Finally, I’m from Singapore so I’m just going to show the kinds of things you can do if you actually do models. You can actually have models worked just like open source software. You can compare models, the health model in Singapore, what would happen if you actually used some of those same models in Estonia or Bulgaria. So we can use the internet in far more powerful ways but we have to coordinated. So thank you.
David Kirkpatrick: Thank you, Mei Lin. I love that the tagline for the IEEE is advancing technology for humanity.


Mei Lin Fung

Vice Chair, Internet Inclusion, IEEE

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