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Belfer Center’s Technology and Public Purpose Project Spotlights Outstanding Technologies for Public Good

| Oct. 15, 2020

Technology is such an integral part of our lives that we generally assume new technologies will make our lives better. But recent events have underscored technology’s potential for destructive impacts as well – from social media’s facilitation of election disinformation to racial bias inadvertently built into the use of facial recognition technologies.  

To help ensure that emerging technologies are developed and managed in ways that serve the overall public good, Ash Carter, Director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center and former Defense Secretary, developed the Technology and Public Policy (TAPP) Project in 2018. To emphasize the need for increased technological responsibility, Carter’s team launched the Tech Spotlight in 2019 to identify and recognize technologies that exemplify innovation centered on public purpose. 

“When I left the Defense Department,” Carter said, “I asked myself what the most important thing was that I could do. I decided the issue of our time was bending the arc of technological change in the direction of overall public good. Technology brings lots of wonderful things, but there is inevitably a dark side as well. What we need to do is get the good without the bad.” That, he said, is what the TAPP Project is working to do. 

In its inaugural TECH SPOTLIGHT recognition ceremony and conversation with the top recipients, TAPP celebrated three outstanding initiatives that represent the best in responsible development and deployment of technology for the public good. These efforts, along with 12 outstanding runners-up, were selected for their impact, innovation, and commitment to public service from more than 200 nominees in 18 countries.  

The top recipients are: AI Model Cards, a technology developed by Google that provides critical information about the capabilities and limitations of machine learning models;  

Spotlight, a web-based tool that helps find child victims of sex trafficking, developed by Thorn, Human Trafficking Search; and 

Stem Cell Based Clinical Trial Practical Advice for Physicians and Review Boards, a guide developed by the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) that assesses the science and safety of stem cell trials.   

As part of the recognition ceremony, Carter and WIRED Editor-in-Chief Nicholas Thompson spoke with representatives of the three top initiatives about how their innovations serve the public in critical ways. Watch their conversation here

In explaining the need for Google’s AI Model Cards, Senior Research Scientist Dr. Meg Mitchell noted that machine learning models behave differently for different kinds of groups. For example, she said, errors were discovered in facial recognition technology that disproportionately misidentifies Black women in criminal searches. The cards provide users with information about each model’s capabilities and limitations.  

Thorn CEO and Executive Director Julie Cordua explained that in the past four years, Thorn’s Spotlight technology has helped identify nearly 15,000 child victims of sex trafficking. The Spotlight technology uses machine learning, Cordua said, to sift through extensive data on the internet to pull out the most likely child victims and help law enforcement identify and find them more quickly. 

Because of the growing use of stem cells in medical treatments, stem cell clinical trials have also increased rapidly and raised a number of safety issues. To tackle this problem, ISSCR developed a guide that compiles information on emerging clinical trials and provides Stem Cell Based Clinical Trial Practical Advice for Physicians and Review Boards. It is critical, said ISSCR’s Dr. Roger Barker, Cambridge University Professor of Neuroscience, that those running and evaluating the trials can independently assess their science and safety.    

The Tech Spotlight runners-up are:

  • AI Fairness 360 (AIF 360), IBM 
  • CCRI Victim Services, Cyber Civil Rights Initiative 
  • Data Detox Kit, Tactical Tech 
  • Digital Citizenship, Common Sense Education 
  • Ethical OS, Omidyar Network, Institute for the Future, and Juggernaut
  • Gender Shades Project, Algorithmic Justice League 
  • Human Genome Editing Initiative, National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Medicine 
  • Laboratoria Bootcamp for Women, Laboratoria 
  • Perpetual Lineup, Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law 
  • The Privacy ProjectThe New York Times 
  • The Project on Precision Medicine, Artificial Intelligence, and the Law (PMAIL), Harvard Law School, Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics  
  • Startup Include, Project Include

TAPP’s Tech Spotlight Casebook describes each selected project and its unique value to society.  

“We congratulate all of our Tech Spotlight recipients for their proven ability to minimize technological harms and protect public purpose values like privacy, safety and security, transparency, accountability, and inclusion – all for the greater good of humanity,” said Carter.  


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For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Wilke, Sharon. “Belfer Center’s Technology and Public Purpose Project Spotlights Outstanding Technologies for Public Good .” News, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, October 15, 2020.

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