The idea for the new Responsible Technology Special Interest Group was born out of a lengthy conversation. A conversation familiar to all Oxford alumni – in tutorials, in the college refectory, late night with coffee. Founders Mira Pijselman (Linacre, 2020) and Emmanouil Bougiakiotis (St Catherine's, 2017) say the exchange of ideas, the dynamism of the Oxford experience, was something they wanted to replicate in working life. To build better; to continue the conversation.
Emmanouil says: ‘Technology can be used for good or ill. We want to create a network of people from Oxford and beyond to exchange ideas on how it can be used for good.’ Mira sees the importance of the group as bringing people together from diverse academic disciplines or careers: ‘We want to reach out to people working in technology, in governance, in marketing and promotion… to enable alumni working in the space to understand where everyone else is working. We want people to come together to build a better technological future.'
Can they provide examples of irresponsible technology? Mira says: ‘Racist facial recognition algorithms,’ for example. ‘In the ‘tech sector,’ it is super important to have more than just technological voices. Diversity of thought is so important. There should be room for social scientists, for lawyers etc. It is not just enough to say simply, ‘We know how to do something,’ it is whether we should be doing it in the first place.’
Emmanouil says there are myriad examples of technology being misused: ‘Look at what happened after 9/11 with the NSA and the expansion of surveillance. This is really worrying. Throughout history, in times of crisis, we see a pattern of society being much more willing to compromise human rights and unfortunately technology can exacerbate/enable those compromises.'
They insist that the need for people to have these difficult conversations is ‘now.’ History tells us that if we leave it too late, the same mistakes happen. ‘How can we develop a methodology and approach to understanding how to assess risk and from there be able to design with responsibility embedded into every process,’ asks Mira.
Emmanouil studied law at Oxford and whilst the faculty did not promote a lot of cross –fertilisation with other departments it happened automatically within the college structure. 'Everyone I met at Oxford was a bright mind and they were going places. This is a terrific opportunity to create a community; a space for the discussions to continue after Oxford.’
They want greater openness in the industry; for morals and ideals to be part of the process and not just abandoned as an academic construct. Mentoring is top of their agenda - providing bona fide experience within the industry. For now, they are focused on a soft-launch – registering interest and signing up group members. A formal launch is planned for September.
Will they be interacting with other groups? Mira again: ‘We see ourselves as bridge builders – between academia and industry. There is an appetite for building much more responsible and trustworthy technology, but we need the talent in the room to be able to spot what the risks are and go in and remediate.’ Technology they say should be ‘for the betterment of humanity, not the detriment.’