Technologies such as artificial intelligence, IoT and blockchain should benefit not just wealthy countries, but the poorest and most vulnerable as well — particularly when it comes to solving the world’s most difficult problems.
That was one takeaway from the first-ever xTech+Impact Summit, an event held at the Global Innovation Exchange in Bellevue, Wash. on Friday that brought policymakers, technologists, corporate executives and nonprofit leaders.
In addition to slowing climate change and thwarting environmental destruction, speakers at the summit said AI can be used to predict cholera based on the number of bridges that wash out in a region, because the disease often follows flooding. Blockchain can be used to track aid to refugees and get the right help to the right people faster.
“It’s just that we haven’t been able to think about it in ways that we can get ahead of these problems,” said Shwetak Patel, an endowed professor of computer science and electrical engineering at the UW and recent ACM Prize winner who gave the morning keynote address.
Patel, a prolific inventor who has sold three startups, has devoted much of his work to health-related issues such as turning a smartphone into a medical device capable of diagnosing asthma, anemia and jaundice.
“You know, there’s a lot of cool gadgets and gizmos and technology out there,” Patel said on Friday. “But it’s solving only for the [wealthiest] 10 percent or even the 1 percent.
“Look at the bottom 20 percent and build technology for them,” he said. “It’s very different technology I would build for the developing countries versus the developed countries.”
Thanks to GIX’s Shwetak Patel and Lara Littlefield for helping to kick off today’s xTech + Impact Summit at GIX. Looking forward to a great day of important conversations. #xtechimpact pic.twitter.com/1eG3GiWHlT
— Global Innovation Exchange (GIX) (@GIX_edu) May 31, 2019
Getting tech like blockchain and AI to the poorest countries has become a hot topic among aid groups and people studying poverty and disease.
“In some sectors, there is fear that some of these technologies are never going to reach people who actually need them,” said Akhtar Badshah, a UW professor who organized the event.
U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.) spoke briefly at the summit. She said a wired world is also leaving small communities behind. People can comparison shop at local merchants and often buy what they want cheaper online, leaving small-town economies with a weaker revenues and no taxes on the sale.
“Local stores are getting hit,” DelBene said.
Presenters at Friday’s summit, which was also attended by local high school and college students just beginning their work in AI, blockchain and IoT, said two key things stand in the way of these technologies benefiting the most vulnerable. Vast stores of valuable data are still largely proprietary and locked away, they said, and designers and programmers don’t always understand the needs of local citizens and frontline aid workers — nor do they give them the right incentives to use the technology.
Ric Shreves, a senior technology advisor at Mercy Corps, said aid groups face enough difficulties getting technology into places where there’s little broadband, cellular or other infrastructure. Even if you can get the technology set up, you’ve got to convince boots-on-the-ground aid workers and the local populations they serve to use that technology.
On top of that, in what Shreves called “a bitter irony,” there’s the additional obstacle of convincing nongovernmental organizations, often competing for funding and reluctant to cooperate, to communicate with each other and share data.
“These organizations that are tasked with being efficient to deliver aid and to deliver good are actually wasting resources by failing to collaborate and share information and data,” Shrives said. “It’s all about aligning incentives. You can crack the education piece. You can crack the infrastructure piece. In the vast majority of cases, you’ve got to get the incentives lined up.”
Still, he said, Mercy Corps is working on several promising blockchain and cryptocurrency projects. The organization, with the assistance of the World Bank, plans to unveil next year a micro solar grid on Gaza apartment buildings that connects every resident to a blockchain energy credit trading system. The system, based on the Brooklyn Microgrid project, makes it possible for the building’s residents to “rack up credits” for energy they don’t use.
In addition, Shreves said, Mercy Corps is launching a trial program that provides direct-to-beneficiary cryptocurrency transfers directly to people living in Venezuela, where the local currency has been slashed in the midst of hyperinflation brought on economic and political chaos. Shreves said he was soon headed to Kampala, Uganda, where his organization is issuing Ethereum blockchain tokens that serve as vouchers with local merchants. Those vouchers, thanks to a system set up by Mercy Corps, will be able to convert the blockchain vouchers into local Ugandan shillings, he said.
These kinds of blockchain systems make it cheaper and more efficient for Mercy Corps to track its transactions, monitor for fraud and meet regulations. “It’s a direct cost savings for us, particularly on the financial audit side of things,” Shreves said.
Neal Singh, chief operating officer of Icertis, discussed how the Bellevue-based cloud contract management company helped Daimler, the Mercedes Benz manufacturer, use blockchain to ensure its materials come from ethical suppliers.
A company like Daimler has thousands of suppliers, so it’s difficult to know if, for example, cobalt bought for manufacturing isn’t “blood cobalt” mined by slave labor. Doing business with just one shady supplier, Singh said, can result in hefty fines and brutal press coverage.
Singh added that conventional supply chain monitoring systems are expensive and time-consuming for large companies like Daimler — and safeguards using older technologies involve a “fundamental lack of trust” because “the supplier’s supplier supplier may not want to share who they are, or what their terms are, what their contractual pricing is.”
By contrast, he said, blockchain is much harder to trick.
“What we did with Daimler was essentially apply blockchain where you can actually authenticate in a downstream fashion whether certain compliance commitments have been made contractually,” Singh said. “So, essentially, the supplier as well as the supplier’s supplier can contribute to the blockchain and say, ‘Yes, we have met this (requirement) and authenticate that we met that requirement.’”
“The fundamental issue is trust,” Singh added.
Trust and ethics were a key point of discussion at the event. Take, for example, the counting of African elephants, said Chris Emura, the executive director of engineering at Vulcan Inc. If a wildlife conservation group is in charge of monitoring elephant populations and its funding depends on those numbers rising, how do you make sure you know how many elephants there are?
The answer: You deploy cameras and machine learning, then you make the data public so there’s always a baseline dataset that everyone can trust, Emura said.
Friday’s summit at GIX — a U.S.-China tech institute established in 2017 — was part of a larger emerging discussion about how technology is shaping human lives, from screen addiction to data privacy to a new gilded age of tech wealth built on products that overlook the most vulnerable.
Seattle design studio hosted Artefact hosted the “All Tech is Human” event last month that also focused on tech and social issues. At that conference, designers, coders, ethicists and researchers said tech companies need more diversity among their ranks to prevent data bias and to design technology for populations, such as the poor or disabled, that are currently overlooked.