We need to talk about techie tunnel vision

Article by Gillian Tett :”Last year, the powerful US data company Palantir filed documents for an initial public offering. Included was a remarkable letter to investors from Alex Karp, the CEO, that is worth remembering now.

“Our society has effectively outsourced the building of software that makes our world possible to a small group of engineers in an isolated corner of the country,” he wrote. “The question is whether we also want to outsource the adjudication of some of the most consequential moral and philosophical questions of our time.”

Karp added, “The engineering elite in Silicon Valley may know more than most about building software. But they do not know more about how society should be organized or what justice requires.” To put it more bluntly, techies might be brilliant and clever at what they do, but that doesn’t make them qualified to organise our lives. It was a striking statement from someone who is himself an ultra techie and whose company’s extensive military and intelligence links have sparked controversy

The good news is that people in his position are finally prepared to talk about it. The even better news is that there are experiments under way to combat techie tunnel vision. In Silicon Valley, for instance, Big Tech companies are hiring social scientists. Other innovation hubs show promising signs too. In Canberra, Genevieve Bell, a former vice-president at Intel, has launched a blended social and computer science AI institute. These initiatives aim to blend AI with what I call “anthropological intelligence” — a second type of “AI” that provides a sense of social context.

The bad news is that such initiatives remain modest, and there is still extreme information asymmetry between the engineers and everyone else. What is needed is an army of cultural translators who will fight our tendency to mentally outsource the issues to engineering elites. Maybe tech innovators such as Karp and Schmidt could use some of their vast wealth to fund this….(More)”.