Silicon Valley and governments have to play nice if we want to save the world

Governments and AIs need to have a chat.
Governments and AIs need to have a chat.
Image: AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi
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Technology doesn’t always cooperate with us when we want it to. And sometimes governments don’t want to cooperate with it, either.

At the United Nation’s High-Level Event on Innovation and Technology, the key tech event for last week’s general assembly gathering, no one could seem to get the microphones working. Despite some of the tech industry’s most important titans being present—such as LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, and Mozilla Foundation executive chairperson Mitchell Baker—the 2.5-hour session on Sept. 18 was plagued with technical problems, including the entire conference room going dark. Twice.

The snafus were a fitting reminder of just how fragile our relationship with technology is. They reinforced a key point that recurred at various conferences during UNGA week: That all the talk of using technology to fight poverty, hunger, and gender inequality is useless if we can’t get over the most basic hurdle—universal access to the internet, which less than half the world currently has. Only then can we attempt to use our digital savvy to tackle the 17  sustainable development goals (SDGs), the UN’s ambitious framework for solving global problems by 2030.

In order to achieve any of this, however, technology leaders in the private sector and government leaders in the public sector are going to have to learn how to get along. Traditionally positioned as opponents at opposite ends of the ring—the private sector wanting to make a profit, the public sector wanting to make a difference—UNGA treated both as equals and encouraged them to shake hands instead of throw punches. True, lasting, global change isn’t the responsibility of either party alone, but to move forward, they’re going to have to find some middle ground on the following issues.

Regulating innovation

One of the biggest arenas that Silicon Valley and national bodies come to blows on is regulation. Governments, wanting to protect their constituents, attempt to provide oversight of titanic tech companies. But tech companies, in a race to out-perform each other for the biggest slice of the profit pie, think that regulations slow them down. As a result, big tech firms consciously find ways to eschew governmental regulation, whether that’s through paying their taxes through havens like Ireland or New Zealand, or taking their business to a country where they feel more welcomed.

At UNGA, ministers and delegates from UN member nations pled for greater control, and CEOs of tech companies pushed back. At the High-Level Event, Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia commented on how much quicker and “dynamic” tech companies can be compared to the governments that regulate them, which are “often quite slow and a step behind us.” On the private side, regulation can make collaboration painful for companies that want to innovate and grow as quickly as possible. On the governmental side, an environment that encourages rapid iteration introduces the kind of fiscal risks that public bodies don’t want to take.

“But I think that technology is starting to realize that you can’t avoid government,” countered Mozilla’s Mitchell Baker. As the executive chairperson of a nonprofit, she held a unique position between the two opposing parties, and therefore acted as a mediator between the profit-minded private companies and the people-minded governments. “Even as a non-profit public benefit technologist, we feel concerned about regulation in an area of tech where change is so great. And it is very difficult to regulate in that area. So at Mozilla, we’re more sympathetic to the idea of government wanting to protect or help its citizens, and even so, it’s very difficult to regulate technology without stifling innovation.”

The topic of regulation also bled over into a Blockchain for Impact breakfast, which was hosted in the SDG media zone.(Hash browns were unfortunately not served at the blockchain breakfast.) With China shuttering its bitcoin exchanges and cryptoinvestors in the US eagerly watching to see if the Securities and Exchange Commission will clamp down on initial coin offerings (ICOs), the consensus in the room seemed to be that these new currencies were running amok.

“The reason why the Chinese government wants to shut down the exchanges is because they want to regulate it,” said Larry Cummings, whose fin-tech company Black Cactus works with the Chinese government. “They will be coming back online again. It’s a lot to do with economic policy and controlling bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, which are really out of control.” Despite the decentralized, transparent nature that the blockchain technology was founded on, most attendees—including many pre-ICO social-impact entrepreneurs—were in favor of incorporating more oversight.

In order to produce laws that won’t stifle the tech industry’s innovative nature, both sides will have to cut each other some slack. This way, tech companies can move forward with a regulatory framework that encourages risk-taking, but not at the expense of the public.

Taking shots

When it comes to achieving the SDGs, Astro Teller, the self-monikered “captain of moonshoots” of the Google-founded secretive research lab X, argues that both governments and tech companies need to aim for the stars. However, most governments would prefer to keep their feet planted firmly on the ground. Opening the Skoll Foundation’s We The Future conference on Sept. 21, he argued that different sectors try to dodge tackling the world’s biggest problems.

“The large companies say they can’t do moonshots because it’s too much risk,” he said, speaking at TED’s New York headquarters. “The small companies say they can’t do moonshots because they don’t have money…The academics say they write about kind-of moonshoty stuff, but they don’t actually take moonshots. Governments are like, ‘Well, that’s not us, that was like last century, we don’t do that anymore.’” To counter these excuses, Teller argued that moonshoots aren’t about money or breaking free of bureaucracy—they’re about imagination. Without taking such shots, he says, the world will never get close to eradicating the problems outlined in the SDGs.

Estonia’s president Kersti Kaljulaid disagreed with the moonshoot methodology. The small Baltic nation has some of the best technology infrastructure in the world, in part because of its Soviet-era legacy, during which time it was “the designated center for software and computer production for the USSR.” Growing tired of all the high-minded talk surrounding the High-Level Event, she was the first to bring expectations back to a more realistic plane. In her experience, basic tech in the hands of many brings about greater social revolution than advanced tech in the hands of few: “It was the washing machine that changed society, not landing on the moon,” she quipped.

Silicon Valley is hurtling toward making big discoveries but leaving wrecks in its wake, whereas governments tend to take the leaky-boat approach, fixing small problems rather than building a new ship entirely. As the public and private sector operate on two different speeds and have different approaches to risk-taking, they’ll need to divide and conquer issues in order to not cancel each others’ efforts out.

Connecting the dots

Of course, even small steps toward technological innovation are of no use to anyone if there is no electrical grid to plug in to. On the most basic level, private tech companies and member nations need to address the 1 billion people who do not have access to electricity, and the 4 billion who don’t have access to the internet, before they can move forward with achieving the SDGs.

“The real issue here,” said Mary Snapp, the vice president of philanthropies at Microsoft, at the High-Level Event, “is that billions of people in the world still do not have connectivity. And not only are they in the emerging markets, they’re also in the more developed markets. In the United States, 23.4 million people still do not have connectivity. In some places where we have large data centers with the best of technology, you can walk across the street to the coffee shop and find that there is no internet access. So it’s important for us to think about internet access for all in emerging countries as well as in developed countries.”

How to turn this into a reality was a common theme throughout UNGA’s events and was echoed by public and private sector alike. In addition to Snapp’s comments, Teller spoke about this idea through Project Loon, X’s attempt to connect the world to the internet using stratospheric balloons; it was the subject of a panel, “Achieving internet for all,” at the World Economic Forum’s summit; and it was raised several times at the Media for Social Impact Summit, a conference coordinated by the PVBLIC Foundation that aimed to use the power of media to strategize and publicize ways to achieve the SDGs.

When it comes to a problem as gargantuan as international internet connectivity, nation states and private tech companies sometimes seem to be playing one big game of “not it.” But who said that the SDGs were the tech industry’s issue to reckon with in the first place? One of the comments of the week came toward the end of the High-Level Event from Singularity University‘s David Roberts. “I know you’re expecting me to talk about how technology may be able to solve these problems…but many of these problems don’t need technology to solve,” he said.

To him, it doesn’t matter if Silicon Valley and national governments can overcome their differences and cooperate with each other—it’ll all be for naught if someone isn’t held accountable for it. Roberts suggested that each SDG should have a member responsible for seeing out its success as a way of encouraging accountability. “There needs to be someone responsible for feeding everyone in the world, for everyone having clean water, and for gender equality. And until we have that, I think we have a void of leadership,” he says.

“That is not a technology problem—that is a leadership problem.”