“I use ‘disruptive’ in both its good and bad connotations. Disruptive scientific and technological progress is not to me inherently good or inherently evil. But its arc is for us to shape. Technology’s progress is furthermore in my judgment unstoppable. But it is quite incorrect that it unfolds inexorably according to its own internal logic and the laws of nature.”
The arc of innovative progress has reached an inflection point.
Technological change has brought immeasurable benefits to billions through improved health, productivity, and convenience. Yet as recent events have shown, unless we actively manage their risks to society, new technologies may also bring unforeseen destructive consequences. Making technological change positive for all is the critical challenge of our time. We ourselves - not only the logic of discovery and market forces - must manage it. To create a future where technology serves humanity as a whole, we need a new approach.
To this end, Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs has launched a new endeavor, the Technology and Public Purpose (TAPP) Project. Directed by Belfer Center Director, MIT Innovation Fellow, and former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, and led on the West Coast by Anja Manuel, Co-Founder and Partner at RiceHadleyGates LLC, the TAPP Project works to ensure that emerging technologies are developed and managed in ways that serve the overall public good.
Much as the reforms of the Progressive movement softened the edges of the farm-to-factory migration a century ago, we aim to create a set of conditions that leaven today's technological change across three domains: digital, biotech, and the future of work. TAPP leverages a network of experts from Harvard University, MIT, and Stanford, along with leaders in technology, government, and business to work on the following priorities:
Responsible Innovation – Collaborating with innovators and entrepreneurs on the responsible development and commercialization of emerging technologies.
Tech Policy – Providing educational training and tools to increase policymakers’ understanding of emerging technologies.
Global Governance – Advancing international efforts to develop frameworks and best practices for governing high-risk technologies
Generation Next – Training and inspiring a new generation of technology leaders to make advancing public purpose a part of their life calling.
Message from Ash Carter
When I began my career in elementary particle physics, the great figures who taught and inspired me had been part of the Manhattan Project generation that developed the atomic bomb. They were proud to have created a ‘disruptive’ technology that ended World War II and deterred a third world war through more than 50 years of tense East-West standoff. They were also proud to have made nuclear power possible. But their understanding of the underlying technology also gave them a deep regard for the awesome, unavoidable risks that came with those technologies.
As a consequence, they dedicated themselves to inventing, in parallel, the technologies behind arms control (like reconnaissance satellites to verify agreements) and nuclear reactor safety (like containment vessels for radioactive leakages). By working on both the bright opportunities and the complex dilemmas of nuclear technology, these scientists tried to round out its effect on humanity. They recognized that the advance of knowledge is inevitable, but it needs to be steered in the direction of public good.
Technologists in my generation understood that we had an opportunity—and an obligation—to use our knowledge in the service of civic life and public purpose. Technologists today have the same obligation and society is in need of practical, analytically driven solutions to the problems that arise in connection with fast-paced technological change. Such solutions will emerge only if the new generation of young tech innovators is encouraged and inspired to assume the civic responsibilities that come with creating changes of great consequence.
Message from Anja Manuel
As a current native of Silicon Valley and former U.S. government official, I have been in equal parts stunned by the benefits our technology revolution is creating, and worried about the assumption some here make that technical progress is automatically and always a force for good.
Since 2000, nearly 4 billion people have joined the Internet and thus gained access unprecedented knowledge; social media is used as an organizing tool to amplify citizens’ voices around the world; and smart phones help payments fly to far flung places that were previously cut off from finance. At the same time, salaries for those left behind by the tech-juggernaut are stagnating; we worry about being displaced by robots; and the vast modern “printing press” of social media can be used to sow discord as much as it can unite.
The first industrial revolution had similar winners and losers. It took the world a century to adjust, and in the process we drastically changed our education system, factory standards, labor laws, and product safety controls. This time the revolution is exponentially faster, so our response is all the more urgent.
We – students, technologists, and policymakers – have an opportunity to bend the sweep of technical innovation towards justice and prosperity for all. Please join us in doing so.
Student Research Assistants:
Aaron Bartnick: MPA Candidate ’20, Harvard Kennedy School
Emily Chi: MPP Candidate ’20, Harvard Kennedy School
Harshini Jayaram: MPP Candidate ’21, Harvard Kennedy School; MBA Candidate ‘21, Harvard Business School
Nate Kim: MPP Candidate ’20, Harvard Kennedy School
Alexander Krey: MPA Candidate '20, Harvard Kennedy School; MBA Candidate '20, Stanford Business School
Angela Winegar: MPP Candidate ’21, Harvard Kennedy School; MBA Candidate ‘21, Harvard Business School