Over the last year, the focus on “tech for good” and ethical artificial intelligence has become more prominent in media discussion, as well as within tech circles in Canada and globally. In the last few months, several workshops and conferences have raised this issue.
Because U.S. policies and restrictions on travel are denying access to some international participants, conference and workshop hosts are now looking to stage some events in Canada. Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, and Waterloo, among other cities, already have growing reputations as tech centers.
But equally important is Canada’s reputation as a welcoming, multicultural society. In other words, Canada’s diversity is seen as a strength. In a sharply divided global political climate, the tech community now wants to be seen to embrace such diversity, eager to refute charges about the lack of it in the tech sector. A common theme at these events is the need for greater diversity at all stages of tech development and application.
In May, the RightsCon conference held in Toronto brought together 2,500 participants from 118 countries to discuss concerns about new technologies and digital human rights. As many of the speakers explained, biased and discriminatory tech is often the result of the lack of diversity in the teams that create the technology. So, the process of creating tech—the WHO that creates the tech—needs to become more diverse, as well as more open.
Panelists pointed out that tech companies often lack awareness of political contexts, happily exporting technology to authoritarian regimes that use it to limit the freedoms of their own citizens. In Myanmar, for example, Facebook was used to incite violence and spread hate speech against the Rohingya. To develop, market, and sell their products responsibly, tech companies need not only technical wizards, but linguists, sociologists, political scientists. They need the social sciences and humanities.
In late May, Communitech, a Waterloo Region public-private innovation hub, hosted its True North Conference under the banner “tech for good,” with the intent of raising questions on the ethical use of the products being created by their members and other tech companies.
Events like these are crucial in continuing the conversation on ethics in technology. But they need to reach beyond the tech community and a small group of critics. An even greater diversity of participants should attend these conferences. And the conversation needs to break out of these isolated silos. We all need to understand the implications of technologies for different communities and in different contexts.
For the most part, ethics is still seen as an add-on that tech developers might consider just before shipping. But such a limited strategy has limited results. A much more useful approach would incorporate the broader community into tech development at a variety of points, holding the tech companies accountable and responsible right from the start.
A call for transparency is also a call for clearer terms and an explanation about how information we provide tech companies is being used. Needed are clear company policies and national legislation that outline the consequences of misuse of information and who will be held accountable for limiting damage and making things right.
Needed as well, are more informed consumers. RightsCon was filled with speakers who could break down complex technologies in clear terms and draw the links to human rights and the daily lives of the general population. This type of information should be a part of the education system and easily available to all citizens.
After all, ordinary citizens are providing their own data and time, which companies such as Facebook use to develop and improve their software. Every time you upload a picture or help Facebook’s software learn if it identified a person in your photos correctly, you are, in fact, participating in the development process.
Both RightsCon and True North featured declarations to guide the development of technology that benefits the broader community and ensures thoughtful application of technology in different contexts. But if these declarations are to have any meaning, they need broader engagement and public input on the regulations that are needed to support the aims. We all have a part to play in creating ethical tech.