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It seems insurmountable today. Digital consumption is rampant. Harms from misinformation to breaches to online bullying to manipulative targeting is spawning an environment of political and societal polarization, increased mental anxiety and even suicides. With inadequate laws to regulate these digital services, the very rules and policies that have continued to govern the physical world are not able to keep pace with the speed of technology, and properly reflect what is happening in our digital spaces.
Can we have a future where creators of technology can build towards responsibility despite the constant allure of monetization and profits? I had a chance to speak to David Ryan Polgar, Founder & Director of the non-profit, All Tech Is Human (ATIH) to dive into discussing this critical juncture where heightened consumer awareness has the potential to drive a different story.
This career shift to be the sudden purveyor of responsible technology is what Polgar has attributed to his mother. This is where he credits his ability to reimagine and not be locked in by the status quo. As a child, he was given free reign to invent, reimagine and to mentally start from scratch.
“I vividly recall always being encouraged to use my imagination with a diverse range of ingredients to create new dishes that might be outrageous. I wasn’t following a recipe, there was no recipe. That was the point. To throw away preconceived notions of what should be done based on what has already been done. To reimagine. This is a sense of experimentation that has always stuck with me, and I believe has allowed me to not be tethered to a strict expectation around a career path.”
The term, “tech ethicist” was something Polgar was able to develop into a meaningful principle that has allowed people to focus on the seriousness of the technology we are developing and deploying.
The Defining Moments
Polgar admits his path was paved out of frustration that there wasn’t enough deep thought about the impact on society. He came to a realization early in his career that the technology being developed would greatly impact the future of humanity. In particular, he points to artificial intelligence and social media that alter freedom of choice and greatly impact the human condition. He describes a pivotal moment in 2010 that solidified his journey.
“I had received a friend request from someone I knew from high school. But before I had the time to confirm the friend request, I heard from another friend that this individual had just taken his life. So here was someone who I now knew was dead, but was actively asking me on Facebook to be my friend. That was an important moment that deeply altered how I thought about technology, and I made it my life’s purpose to help bring greater consideration to how we develop and deploy emerging technologies.”
Another key moment happened in 2012. Polgar was assigned to do jury duty, which would include a day of waiting for hours. When he arrived, he realized he forgot his phone. After a few hours of sitting in the waiting room, he started to feel his phone vibrate. When he reached into my pocket, there was no phone. He coined this experience “phantom vibrations”. He Googled the symptoms and when he returned home, he read a Pew Research statistic that two-thirds of Americans have had phantom rings, similar to how someone who loses their leg may have the sensation that their leg is still there. For Polgar, that cemented the importance of his getting deeply involved in the impact of tech. The next year, Polgar gave a TEDx talk about this story and posited that our relationship with technology has hindered our ability to think deeply. “Thinking deeply about the impact of technology has been a connective tissue with all of my work.”
It’s clear, we are at this turning point where human values and conscience create this increasing pressure for business to do better. Within organizations, the voice of the employee has become much stronger, and elevated and supported by society. Polgar believes we have always had people on the right side of social media history. However, the mainstream has had a tendency to listen to those on the wrong side, who then have an awakening, and then go on a redemption tour. For Polgar, he doesn’t necessarily see himself as that catalyst to continue to enable this dynamic. As someone who sits at the intersection of multiple fields and is deeply involved with a range of stakeholders, he is able to be a community leader that will guide the development of pathways for new voices. It means ensuring that more voices from the diverse community are able to influence technology’s path. As Polgar points out,
“There are many lone wolf thought leaders talking about Responsible Tech. I have always seen the need in promoting greater connectivity and collaboration, and being a leader that moves us away from looking for saviors and instead tilts us toward having a more proactive, collaborative approach that values multiple perspectives working together.”
What is Responsible Tech?
Polgar defines this as the movement that seeks to reduce the harms of technology, diversifying the tech pipeline and ensuring that technology is aligned with public interest. He specifically distinguishes this from the “tech for good” movement, which is often centered on promoting technologies beneficial to humanity. Polgar believes there needs to be equal weighting to both “responsible” and “tech” and believes that mitigating harms associated with technology that better align with public interest will require a mix of technologists, psychologists, designers, ethicists, sociologists, attorneys, academics, and more. This diversity is what will breed responsible innovation to ensure multiple perspectives that better foresee and reduce harms.
All Tech Is Human (ATIH) has become and essential community that has brought more awareness and impact to the digital community, technology startups and even students who have a desire to work in what seems to be an emerging field.
Polgar explains his nonprofit organization, based in New York City, is focused on growing the responsible tech pipeline.
“We unite multiple stakeholders from a broad range of backgrounds and perspectives in order to help co-create a better tech future. Our organization has a global Slack community, a mentorship program, a university ambassador program, and working groups that develop collaborative reports (such as Improving Social Media and The Business Case for AI Ethics). We recently launched ResponsibleTechGuide.com, which showcases the diverse responsible tech community and includes many resources. We also recently held a Responsible Tech Summit online for participants from 60 countries.”
Polgar sees many instances where technology that impacts a large range of groups is made by a tiny group of individuals. That is a problem, as people who are deeply impacted by technology should have the ability to affect the process of how it is developed and deployed. ATIH seeks to create a better understanding and pathways for more passionate people to get involved in the process of affecting our tech future in a positive way. This could include working in an AI ethics or Trust & Safety role at a large tech company, joining a startup that is focused on ethical AI or reimagining social media, or working for an research organization that provides needed understanding of how we can better approach our tech future.
Building a Better Tech Future
Polgar sees a better future where a far greater percentage of society feels that the technology being developed has them in mind. There is no possible tech future that makes everyone happy as there is a large variety of desired tech futures. He references the recent debate regarding Apple trying to better tackle Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) that brought to the surface the major differences between privacy advocates and those looking to reduce the spread of harmful photos. Every technological decision involves a trade-off; having a better tech future is one in which more of the general public are brought into the conversation, making their opinions known.
However, the awareness of these ethical issues has yet to catch up with the reality of technology being embedded into every aspect of our daily lives. Polgar contends we are always one or two steps behind. For example, there are complicated issues around brain-computer interface that we need to grapple with. But for the general public, the concept of brain-computer interface still feels distant. The issues around self-driving cars is one of the rare topics where there has been a great deal of debate around the ethical implications at a pace that is keeping up with innovation. Facial recognition, on the other hand, is an issue where it seems like society is playing catch-up as so much of the technology has been deployed prior to society’s ability to adequately debate if and when it’s been appropriate.
Ethical technology, Polgar cautions, does not mean getting caught up in the trap where we assume we slow innovation. He explains,
“I’m an American, and Americans tend to really dislike the idea of putting barriers to innovation. I see the challenge with ethical technology as showcasing that the goal is not to slow down innovation, but to speed up how quickly we use our ability to consider the impact of technology. In other words, problems occur when technology is developed at a rate far faster than our ability to understand its impact, which leads to unintended consequences. The biggest challenge to overcome is accelerating our ability to consider technology’s impact.”
Polgar emphasizes the importance of individual and business contribution to developing and deploying better technologies. The biggest contribution is recognizing that ethical technology should not be left to define by a select few within the organization; everyone should actively consider the impact of what is being developed. Businesses and individuals should move away from a culture of shifting responsibility to a certain person or department, to a culture that respects and expects critical thinking and active questioning over how a piece of technology will be used, abused, and impact a diverse range of communities. This means defining these safe spaces for conversation but also mandating these principles and embracing them from C-suite.
Polgar believes our tech future is being decided today. The most important threats stem from our inability to create a collaborative, multi-stakeholder approach that recognizes that a better tech future depends on having more socially-responsible tech companies, more proactive policymakers, and a better educated and engaged general public. Where individual conscience and values continue to surface, we are in a phase of finger-pointing where we are looking to blame one of these groups. This cultural reality will only hinder the important work in resolving these complex issues and how we can better approach the development and deployment of technologies.
The pandemic has shifted the conversation around technology and ethics as we have become increasingly dependent on connectivity and remote tools in order to work, go to school and communicate. Polgar sees this phenomenon as an episode in history that allows people to better understand their love/hate relationship with so much of modern technology. It has also allowed people to refocus their attention on the fact that most everyone in the responsible tech movement is involved because there is a prevailing belief in the power of technology to improve our lives, with a caveat in realizing that potential is not currently being met.
The Future We Deserve
David Polgar did a talk in Riga, Latvia where he spoke about the immense power of social media companies that have lead to a no-win solution. This is what he imagines and fervently believes it’s bound to happen:
“In the next couple of years, we’re going to see a transition from social media companies that have this consolidate power and that’s going to transition into a hybrid system of industry players and governmental bodies and other communities.”
These platforms are facing enormous public pressure to do the right thing. In the nascent days of social media there was this belief that it didn’t matter where we were located in the world, we could have access to all this information and shared technology, and we’d all benefit from this enormous network of knowledge and shared ideas. That was the vision and the panacea. Instead, it brought about this public square that allowed a marketplace of ideas. The belief was, like natural market forces, we shouldn’t interfere in this marketplace because good ideas, and more importantly, truth would rise to the top. The opposite has happened. And now we are left with a deepening societal impact that continues to benefit the very platforms that perpetuate what’s bad for society.
Polgar believes that the companies do not have the incentive structures to change. They cannot be relied on to do the right thing if they are serving two masters: profitability and society.
However, he believes that something is going to change. Everybody needs to be responsible.
“Politicians need to be more informed. You need to have general users who understand and are savvier about how they interact with technology. You need to have technology companies that realize their social responsibility. You need to have employees understand what they are creating. The last part is we are shifting responsibility — from government to big tech. We need to adjust and that means a collaboration… I want to come back here in five years and I want the speaker to ask me that same question: “So raise your hand. If you think the internet or the web or social media is bringing us closer together and making us smarter and promoting the truth?” I want to be the first to raise my hand!”
David Ryan Polgar is a pioneering tech ethicist, responsible tech advocate, and international speaker whose commentary has appeared on CBS This Morning, the TODAY show, BBC World News, Fast Company, SiriusXM, Associated Press, The Guardian, LA Times, USA Today, and many others. David is the founder of All Tech Is Human, an organization focused on growing the Responsible Tech pipeline by making it more diverse, multidisciplinary, and aligned with the public interest. Under this stewardship the organization has put out two recent reports, The Business Case for AI Ethics: Moving From Theory to Action and Improving Social Media: The People, Organizations, and Ideas for a Better Tech Future. In addition, he led the creation of the Responsible Tech Guide, which has become the go-to resource bringing new voices into the Responsible Tech ecosystem. As a leading Responsible Tech advocate, he is committed to greatly diversifying the tech pipeline in order to bring in a broad range of backgrounds better suited for the complex sociotechnical issues we face. David is also heavily involved in improving social media, and is a member of TikTok’s Content Advisory Council and a frequent advisor and consultant on ways to build a better tech future.