What is the secret to doing good with technology?

The FDA is currently considering clinical trials for a drug that would delay ageing. The idea of extending human longevity is a controversial one, with some arguing for immortality and others arguing that a lifespan into the mid-70s is perfectly adequate.

So is the drug good or bad? For me as an investor in science and technology, this is a non-trivial question. With the accelerating pace of technological progress and our incredibly powerful tools of creation, this question has never been more relevant for everyone on planet Earth.

Personally, I have always thought that anything that would help us all live longer healthy lives is a good technology. But what I consider to be “good” differs from what others do, sometimes significantly. My opinions, like all of us, are informed by my values, beliefs, circumstances, life experiences, and a myriad of other variables. To use a computer metaphor, my ideological operating system – the code base that I use to process and make sense of the world – isn’t the same as yours. It’s neither better nor worse, it’s just different.

So if everyone’s ideas of good and bad are different, how can we decide how to do good with technology? In exploring this, I realized this may be the wrong starting point. Instead, the following may be a better guide: the best way to do good with technology is to build good technology.

Lead with technology, not values

Most of us aspire to do “good” in the world. Acting on our good intentions, what we decide to do is driven by our personal values. But, failures happen when our values don’t match those of the groups we’re trying to influence, or the approach is sub-optimal in producing the best possible technology.

Take the 1960-70s model of big aid programmes operating in large parts of Africa, for example. Many such programmes have largely failed in their objectives, according to the World Bank’s private arm, the International Finance Corporation. One illustrative example, described in an article last year, is the PlayPump, a water pump in the form of a merry-go-round designed to be operated by children while they are playing. The idea appealed to the values of the developed-world donors funding it, but less than two years after these pumps were deployed in Africa, pumps were unmaintained, broken, and abandoned.

Even though this example is a cliche in the nonprofit world, the lesson it represents is still relevant. How do we avoid such failures? My proposition is that as entrepreneurs and investors, rather than focusing on doing good with technology, let’s instead focus on building good technology. The difference is much more than semantics.

Building good technology starts with strong curiosity, pursuit of hard problems, and exploration, wherever it leads. It isn’t necessarily high-minded. Rather, on an important level, it’s the age-old quest to build a better mousetrap – or maybe even to re-imagine the problem in a way that eliminates a need for a mousetrap in the first place.

Good technology isn’t just a matter of mission statements; it can also come from a tinkerer with no specific overriding purpose other than the pursuit of knowledge. In either case, building good technology is an act of exploration, relentlessly pushing beyond current understanding and capabilities. These are behaviors and preferences commonly shared among scientists, inventors, and technologists.

In my current venture, we are investing in companies using science to build good technology. In many cases, the technology is already advanced enough to identify tangible applications, like ameliorating sickness. But many of the emerging science and technology efforts we are funding, such as exploring the microbiome or artificial intelligence, are simply about exploring hard questions without pre-defined motives around their potential usage. In other words, we are pursuing good technology because we believe that’s ultimately how we’ll do the most good in the world.

Design in values where they matter

So I have asked myself: Is there a place for explicit values in technology at all? Yes, I think there is, but it is not at the lofty level of grand intentions; it is in the trenches of product design.

A model to contemplate as we all work on merging our natural desires to do good in the world with what we build: design your values into the technology where it helps the technology itself become better. For example, when I was building my payments company Braintree, a central design focus for our product and company culture was building transparency, trust, and reliability, which made the technology better.

By contrast, going back to the PlayPump example: children’s play is not in any obvious way connected to the problem of delivering water to places in need, and does not provide any exceptional leverage based on a scientific or technological principle. Water pumped by playing children is not better or radically less energy-intensive than water pumped by adults, oxen or electric pumps. The PlayPump grafted the value of “promoting play” onto a product to further a top-down agenda.

A place for profit

A new generation of entrepreneurs is now turning its attention from solving discrete business problems to solving the world’s problems, with a variety of funds, initiatives, and foundations (and many with a hacker mindset). So how can we leverage individual and collective resources to build and deploy good technology?

Organisations of all types – from government and academia to foundations and corporations – can (and do) create good technology. While each has its own track record of successes and failures, pros and cons, I believe good technology often results from the intense pressures a capitalist market creates to sustainably maximize value creation for the largest number of people. In this system, inferior or incomplete solutions are left by the wayside. Promising ideas are made better by market forces and competition.

That is, in part, why I decided to start an investment fund with my own capital rather than to create a foundation or traditional charity. As I will discuss at a panel this week, I believe that capitalism is a highly effective way to get good technology into the hands of more people.

By their very nature, capitalists don’t want to be in the business of defining what good is. They want to create large, profitable markets. So they’re not concerned whether you use their technology to do banking, play games, watch Khan Academy videos, or even illicit purposes. But just because business people are often pluralist and laissez faire does not mean that the outcome is any different than if moral philosophers had recommended the actions they take anyway.

A powerful example of these principles in action is in the education sector. One Laptop per Child (OLPC) started in 2005 with the intention of getting a low-cost computer to children in developing nations. The project, while an ambitious and noble idea, ran into all sorts of problems and eventually failed. In the meanwhile, cheap Chinese manufactured smartphones, driven purely by commercial motives, have revolutionized Africa and Asia.

It doesn’t always work out this way, of course. Philanthropy, academia, and government funding play a critical role in subsidizing innovation. For many problems, market-based solutions may simply fall short. But technology that really changes the world has an uncanny habit of standing on its own legs.

So what about that anti-ageing pill? This is something I’d invest in because it promises to add to the library of human knowledge while filling an important market need. It is good technology at its best, pushing the envelope of what humanity is capable of.

I’m encouraged to see so many different models working towards bringing about positive outcomes with technology. To have a shot at solving some of our most vexing challenges, we need a diverse ecosystem of approaches. As for me, I’m betting that the pursuit of good technology will create the most favorable conditions for humanity to flourish.

Have you read?
Why entrepreneurship means writing your own story
Why I don’t listen to what my employees tell me
What Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition can teach entrepreneurs

Author: Bryan Johnson is an entrepreneur, investor and founder of OS Fund, established with $100 million of his personal capital to support inventors and scientists working to benefit humanity

Image: A boy tries to talk to a humanoid robot during a science promotional event in Zhengzhou, Henan province, September 19, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer 

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