Some tech events are adept at showcasing mind-bending new technologies. Others manage to expose the frailties and flaws of a contentious tech world. A few manage to focus on both.

That last was the case for Technology Review’s EmTech MIT virtual event this week, which highlighted advances in a number of intriguing tech areas while identifying concerns around election hacking and the impact of the global pandemic.

Even some of the tech world’s luminaries seemed baffled at times by the turn of recent events. “I don’t really know what I’m doing, to be honest with you,” Marc Benioff (pictured), chairman and chief executive of Salesforce.com Inc., said during an EmTech interview. “This is my first pandemic.”

Robots and sprayable tech

Despite the disruption caused by COVID-19, the pace of technological innovation does not appear to be slowing. Researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory or CSAIL demonstrated sprayable paint that turns ordinary surfaces into interactive controllers. The arm of a couch can now activate a TV and a painted design on a cement wall manages in-room music and lighting at the touch of a finger.

Another CSAIL project featured a robot that can study and then mimic human arm movements to perform tasks with remarkable dexterity. MIT’s “RoboRaise” experienced its own viral moment last year when it successfully nailed the Bottle Cap Challenge.

However, the story of 2020 goes far beyond sprayable interfaces and robots. This is a time when issues of health, severe climate events, cybersecurity and the impact of social media on national elections dominate the headlines — and they loomed large over the EmTech discussion this week as well.

“There’s been a growing sense that the tech industry has been paying attention to the wrong things in the years leading up to this,” Gideon Lichfield, editor-in-chief of the MIT Technology Review, said in his introductory remarks.

Quest for stakeholder capitalism

One of the technology companies that’s especially active in focusing on issues outside of strictly technical areas is Salesforce. The company launched a COVID-19 contact tracing platform in early May, and it is now in use by 35 U.S. states.

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Benioff emphasized a recent theme of his involving the concept of stakeholder capitalism, the idea that companies need to do more than provide returns to shareholders.

“Politics is clearly not our platform for change, it’s got to be business,” Benioff said on Tuesday. “Let’s use it in a positive way.”

The Salesforce CEO has been seeking to galvanize the business community around reducing the global carbon footprint. Data centers require significant amounts of energy for cooling which can output large quantities of carbon dioxide.

A paper produced by computer scientists at the University of Massachusetts last year found that training one computing model in natural language processing can produce the equivalent in carbon emissions of 125 round-trip flights between New York and China. Benioff’s goal is to get the business community to embrace net zero carbon operations, as he has done with Salesforce.

“Every company has to be net zero,” Benioff declared during EmTech on Tuesday. “If you’re a CEO and you’re not net zero, when are you going to be net zero? Let’s just get right there.”

Aside from reducing the carbon profile of data center computer systems, there is the challenge of protecting them from cyberattacks as well. Threats to U.S. election systems from foreign actors have occupied headlines for the past several weeks in advance of the vote on Nov. 3. The National Security Agency took the unusual step of issuing an advisory on Oct. 20 which warned that Chinese adversaries were targeting national security systems.

The advisory specifically called out more than 20 vulnerabilities identified by NSA, including issues with virtual private networks, remote desktop services and application delivery controllers.

NSA Cybersecurity Director Anne Neuberger described the agency’s action as part of a strategy to be more proactive in alerting government agencies and technology contractors.

“These were vulnerabilities that were known, and we still see vulnerabilities that remain unpatched,” Neuberger said. “We’re trying to provide unique actionable information to the cybersecurity community.”

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Social media under scrutiny

Vulnerabilities extend beyond election systems and government infrastructure. There is the added complexity of tracking hate speech or misinformation campaigns which leverage social media platforms. A lively discussion at EmTech highlighted how the two largest social media platforms – Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. – were taking vastly different approaches.

In June, Facebook announced that it would remove posts that incite violence or suppress voting and slap labels on content which violated the platform’s hate speech policies. The company now employs an estimated 15,000 content moderators to screen postings around the clock, although a report issued earlier this year by New York University makes the case that Facebook needs to double that number to do an effective job.

Nevertheless, the platform has moved from an earlier posture of mild attempts to adjudicate content to enforcing its policies actively through the use of artificial intelligence models and human reviewers.

“We’re taking more aggressive measures, we’ve ‘5xed’ the amount of content we’re taking down for hate speech,” said Mike Schroepfer, chief technology officer at Facebook, during a conference interview on Thursday. “We’ve got AI classifiers now that are state of the art and work in multiple languages. We’re trying to stay contemporaneous with threats of the day.”

Facebook’s position stands in contrast to Twitter, which has attempted to take a more hands-off approach toward content moderation. This has been an interesting balancing act, as demonstrated by its recent decision to block the posting of information published in the New York Post related to the presidential campaign.

Twitter has taken steps in recent weeks to address content concerns. Earlier this week, the social media platform instituted new controls around retweeting information. Twitter also announced this month that it would add context to trending topics in an effort to curb misinformation and hate speech.

Unlike Facebook, which is actively removing posts, Twitter is more inclined to encourage open dialogue and add information when it has concerns that certain content may be misleading.

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“We do not try to adjudicate truth, we choose not to try to flag something that’s true or false,” said Parag Agrawal, chief technology officer at Twitter. “Defining misinformation is really, really hard. We want to provide people with context around a piece of content so they can be better informed.”

The confluence of a global pandemic, disastrous climatological events, cybersecurity attacks and misinformation on social media has added a new dimension to the state of the tech world in 2020. The technology itself still remains important, but so are the consequences of using it.

“Four years ago, we were waking up to the threat of fake news,” said Technology Review’s Lichfield. “Now we know that misinformation can kill people.”

Photo: Mark Albertson/SiliconANGLE

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