Martin Heidegger had a rather negative view of modern technology. He felt that it contributed to the forgetfulness of Being, that while solving pragmatic problems it contributed little by itself to the solution of the human problem which has to do with our purpose in history and the very meaning of our lives and destinies.
He begins his Being and Time with this question: Why is there something rather than nothing. Admittedly, this question cannot be answered by science which is concerned with practical solutions to practical problems and not with metaphysics. What Heidegger abysmally ignored, however, is the ineluctable fact that in a world with a population of seven billion people, we simply cannot dismiss science and technology out of hand. It would spell our doom as a race.
A wiser, more prudent way, may very well be to create a bridge between this unfortunate dichotomy of our post-modern world; that is to say, a bridge between the liberal arts and positivist science. I would point to Da Vinci as the quintessential Renaissance man who conceived of no dichotomy between those two cultures (as conceived by C.P. Snow in his classical The Two Cultures) and may point the way to a bridging of the two. It is said that Da Vinci had the kind of mind that looked at the abyss which others considered insurmountable and would ask: how do we bridge it?
But much closer to our times, there is another important figure who was always thinking outside the box and would have no problem in conceiving a possible synthesis of the two cultures, a new Renaissance, so to speak. He could be inspirational in this regard. I refer to the Serbian-American Nikola Tesla (1856-1943), a mechanical-electrical engineer, inventor and futurist, who came to the US in 1884. He is best known for his contributions to the design of the modern alternative current (AC) electricity supply system. He patented the AC induction motor and envisioned a wireless communication system.
He was always under the shadow of Thomas Edison and was largely forgotten after his death but has recently (since the 1990s) enjoyed a resurgence in popular culture. The Tesla Motor Company, bearing his name, currently produces electrical premium cars which are aesthetically pleasing but do not pollute the atmosphere. This marriage of aesthetics and technology is a paradigm for the idea that technology does not have to be demonized; it can be used for good purposes as well as for nefarious purposes, it all depends on the intention of its practitioners and their ability to freely choose, as Kant has well taught us in his Critique of Practical Reason. Indeed, a bridge is possible and Da Vinci and Tesla point the way.
After Google’s new set of community standards: What next?
After weeks of Google’s community standard guidelines made headlines, the Digital Industry Group Inc. (Australia based NGO) rejected proposals from the regulating body based in the southern hemisphere. The group claimed that regulating “fake news” would make the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission a moral police institution. In late August, Google itself forbade its employees from indulging in the dissemination of inadequate information or one that involved internal debates. From the outset, the picture is a bit confusing. After the events in Australia, Google’s latest act of disciplinary intrusion seems all but galvanizing from certain interests or interest groups.
A year earlier, Google was shaken by claims of protecting top-level executives from sexual crimes; the issue took a serious turn and almost deteriorated company operations. If anything but Google’s development from the horror of 2018 clearly suggests a desperate need from the hierarchy to curb actions that could potentially damage the interests of several stakeholders. There is no comprehensive evidence to suggest that Google had a view on how the regulations were proposed in Australia. After all, until proven otherwise, all whistleblowing social media posts and comments are at one point of time, “fake”. Although the global giant has decided to discontinue all forms of unjustifiable freedom inside its premises; however, it does profit by providing the platform for activism and all forms of censure. The Digital Industry Group wants the freedom to encourage digital creative contents, but Google’s need to publish a community guideline looks more of a defensive shield against uncertainties.
On its statement, the disciplinary clause, significantly mentions about the actions that will be taken against staffs providing information that goes around Google’s internal message boards. In 2017, female employees inside the Google office were subjected to discrimination based on the “gender-ness” of working positions. Kevin Kernekee, an ex-employee, who was fired in 2018, confirmed that staff bullying was at the core of such messaging platforms. Growing incidents inside Google and its recent community stance are but only fuelling assumptions about the ghost that is surrounding the internet giant’s reputation. Consequently, from the consumer’s point of view, an instable organization of such global stature is an alarm.
The dissidents at Google are not to be blamed entirely. As many would argue, the very foundation of the company was based on the values of expression at work. The nature of access stipulated into Google’s interface is another example of what it stands for, at least in the eyes of consumers. Stakeholders would not wish for an internal turmoil; it would be against the enormous amount of trust invested into the workings of the company. If google can backtrack from its core values upon higher forces, consumers cannot expect anything different. Google is not merely a search engine; for almost half of the internet users, it is almost everything.
“Be responsible, Be helpful, Be thoughtful”. These phrases are the opening remarks from the newly engineered community guideline. As it claims in the document, three principles govern the core values at Google. Upon closer inspection, it also sounds as if the values are only based on what it expects from the people working for the company. A global company that can resort to disciplining its staff via written texts can also trim the rights of its far-reaching consumer groups. It might only be the beginning but the tail is on fire.
How to Design Responsible Technology
Biased algorithms and noninclusive data sets are contributing to a growing ‘techlash’ around the world. Today, the World Economic Forum, the international organisation for public-private cooperation has released a new approach to help governments and businesses counter these growing societal risks.
The Responsible Use of Technology report provides a step-by-step framework for companies and governments to pin point where and how they can integrate ethics and human rights-based approaches into innovation. Key questions and actions guide organizations through each phase of a technology’s development process and highlight what can be done and when to help organizations mitigate unethical practices. Notably, the framework can be applied on technology in the ‘final’ use and application phase, empowering users to play an active role in advocating for policies, laws and regulations that address societal risks.
The guide was co-designed by industry leaders from civil society, international organizations and businesses including BSR, the Markkula Centre for Applied Ethics, the United Nation’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Microsoft, Uber, Salesforce, IDEO, Deloitte, Omidyar Network and Workday. The team examined national technology strategies, international business programmes and ethical task forces from around the world, combining lessons learned with local expertise to develop a guide that would be inclusive across different cultures.
“Numerous government and large technology companies around the world have announced strategies for managing emerging technologies,” said Pablo Quintanilla, Fellow at the World Economic Forum, and Director in the Office of Innovation, Salesforce. “This project presents an opportunity for companies, national governments, civil society organizations, and consumers to teach and to learn from each other how to better build and deploy ethically-sound technology. Having an inclusive vision requires collaboration across all global stakeholders.”
“We need to apply ethics and human rights-based approaches to every phase in the lifecycle of technology – from design and development by technology companies through to the end use and application by companies across a range of industries,” said Hannah Darnton, Programme Manager, BSR. “Through this paper, we hope to advance the conversation of distributed responsibility and appropriate action across the whole value chain of actors.”
“Here, we can draw from lessons learned from companies’ efforts to implement ‘privacy and security by design,” said Sabrina Ross, Global Head of Marketplace Policy, Uber. “Operationalizing responsible design requires leveraging a shared framework and building it into the right parts of each company’s process, culture and commitments. At Uber, we’ve baked five principles into our product development process so that our marketplace design remains consistent with and accountable to these principles.”
This report is part of the World Economic Forum’s Responsible Development, Deployment and Use of Technology project. It is the first in a series tackling the topic of technology governance. It will help inform the key themes at the Forum’s Global Technology Governance Summit in San Francisco in April 2020. The project team will work across industries to produce a more detailed suite of implementation tools for organizations to help companies promote and train their own ‘ethical champions’. The steering committee now in place will codesign the next steps with the project team, building on the input already received from global stakeholders in Africa, Asia, Europe, North America and South America.
The Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network brings together more than 100 governments, businesses, start-ups, international organizations, members of civil society and world-renown experts to co-design and pilot innovative approaches to the policy and governance of technology. Teams in Colombia, China, India, Israel, Japan, UAE and US are creating human-centred and agile policies to be piloted by policy-makers and legislators, shaping the future of emerging technology in ways that maximize their benefits and minimize their risks. More than 40 projects are in progress across six areas: artificial intelligence, autonomous mobility, blockchain, data policy, drones and the internet of things.
The Network helped Rwanda write the world’s first agile aviation regulation for drones and is scaling this up throughout Africa and Asia. It also developed actionable governance toolkits for corporate executives on blockchain and artificial intelligence, co-designed the first-ever Industrial IoT (IIoT) Safety and Security Protocol and created a personal data policy framework with the UAE.
Digitally shaping a greener world
Women were not allowed on map-making ship voyages until the 1960s—it was believed that they would bring bad luck. Spanish nuns made maps in the 10th century.
The first A-Z street map of London was created after one woman got lost on her way home from a party, then woke up every day at 5 a.m. to chart the city’s 23,000 streets.
As it turns out, women have always contributed to the drawing of maps despite hurdles.
This puts Molly Burhans, founder of GoodLands, in good company. For the first time in history, she is setting out to digitally map the land assets of one of the world’s largest land-owners—the Catholic Church.
The journey has been spiritual. Instead of becoming a nun, she decided to pursue digital mapping instead. “Our work is grounded in science, driven by design and inspired by values of stewardship and charity,” she explains.
It all started when a course in biological illustration turned into a fascination with how everything fits together.
“You can’t do surgery unless you’ve studied human anatomy—and you can’t really do sound environmental work unless you’ve mapped the environment and landscape, and can visualize it,” she explains.
She was introduced to digital mapping by Dana Tomlin, the originator or Map Algebra and Geographic Information Systems professor at the University of Pennsylvania and Yale University. When she visited the Vatican in 2016, it got her thinking.
“The Vatican has the most fantastic maps I’ve ever seen,” she said. “White, gold, platinum frescoes flanked the doors. I thought they must have the most incredible land datasets anywhere in the world.”
The Vatican is the smallest state in the world, and its biggest land owner. There are 250,000 Catholic-affiliated parishes, orphanages, community centers and retreat monasteries around the world, reaching an estimated 57.6 million people globally.
It is also the world’s largest non-government health care provider. The Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Health Care workers estimates that around 26 per cent of healthcare facilities are operated by the Roman Catholic Church.
Iyad Abumoghli, Principal Coordinator of UN Environment Programme’s Faith for Earth Initiative, said:
“Globally, faith-based organizations own 8 per cent of habitable land on the surface of the earth and 5 per cent of all commercial forests. There are around 37 million churches and 3.6 million mosques around the world.
“Burhans’ work supports UNEP’s Faith for Earth Initiative to harness the socio-economic power of faith-based organizations, where preaching meets practice.
“Mapping faith-owned assets will contribute to strategically employ faith values in managing them, ultimately leading to fighting climate change and curbing ecosystem degradation.”
Fear of the unknown
Burhans reflects: “Why not leverage this network for environmental good?”
But then the hurdle hit. The data wasn’t digital. In fact—it wasn’t even there.
“None of the land had been digitally mapped. I was surprised – this was bigger than I’d realized. We can’t manage property without foundational data—never mind ecosystem restoration. So, I just kept going to find the data.”
When she confirmed that data did not exist, Burhans asked the Holy See for permission to create the first comprehensive global digital data map of the Catholic Church’s footprint and people in history, working with a large team at mapping software company Esri, as Chief Cartographer.
Her mission: to help faith-based communities, such as religious orders, dioceses, and the Vatican to first understand what land assets they own. Next, figure out how to leverage those assets for ecosystem restoration on a scale parallel to its massive global health network.
The power of knowing
For Burhans, maps represent the power to shape our world for better health and environmental protection. “We dare to use land for environmental good. I can’t emphasize how important our surroundings and environment are,” she notes.
“Maps are just the tool, allowing us to capture complex information, from biodiversity to soil type, all in one place. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a map is worth a million.”
“We can map where ecological failure might trigger heavy migration. Or, where sea level rise might force poor communities to move. We can see where more trees could cool hot cities; where green spaces could bring health benefits in areas with high respiratory problems.”
For Burhans, the potential of a large data hub capturing all this information across the church’s land portfolio is exciting—and unprecedented. It also has implications for all land owners and governments around the world.
Her team maps environmental, social and financial factors of a property portfolio. Centralizing information in one digital hub across sectors—health care, education, relief—could save tens of millions each year, she reflects.
She is also asking bigger questions: “How will artificial intelligence transform our world? How can we leverage land and religion to become the solution to our crises? We must be at the forefront of these issues.”
Mapping the church’s global footprint
Honing big data for environmental restoration is part of Burhans’ vision. Some of this is technical: bringing the Catholic Church into the digital area: “With relevancy, with the right information to roll out safety.”
But the vision is also about people. “We want to help people realize that mapping assets is vital to manage them responsibly. We cannot help the church improve its footprint if we don’t know what is has.”
“We all have different talents and gifts. Mine lean towards creating new technology and applying it to make land work for the greater good. That’s my vocation: to make sure that’s done—and done with integrity.”
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