Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt once said that “the internet is the first thing humanity has built that humanity doesn’t understand, the largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever had.” And over the past few decades, we have seen some unintended consequences of that “anarchy,” ranging from data theft to disinformation to political and social polarization.
So how can society expand on the many benefits of digital life while also reducing the negative impacts?
David Bray, Ph.D., is aiming to do just that as the executive director for the People-Centered Internet (PCI), an international coalition of positive change agents who are working to shape the internet as a force for good in the world. The arrival of his son was a catalyst for Bray to join Vint Cerf, regarded as the “father of the internet,” to work to restore our focus on the benefits of technology after Bray’s years spent leading government initiatives mostly centered on matters of national defense.
In conjunction with Bray’s participation in the Exponential Medicine conference hosted by Singularity University, 24Life recently spoke to him about how the internet can be used to measurably improve people’s lives, including their health.
From whiz kid to internet advocate
Bray’s career path began in the 1980s with a gift from his grandfather—an IBM PC, which became a catalyst for his lifelong love of problem-solving.
“My first computer had a modest 64 kilobytes of RAM and a 16-color display,” Bray says. “I took it apart and put it back together, and later I started to teach myself how to code.”
When he was just 15 years old, his competitions in science fairs in Virginia caught the attention of the U.S. government. He was offered a job with the Energy Department working on problems in advanced physics (think quarks and neutrinos), requiring him to obtain a parent-approved work permit because of his age.
In the years since that first government job, Bray has held a dizzying array of technology roles. He served as the IT chief for the Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Initiative at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the period after 9/11. Bray also worked in the private sector with Microsoft and Yahoo, and he volunteered in Afghanistan in 2009 to help “think differently” about military and humanitarian efforts in the region.
But it was an important life milestone that inspired him to join PCI. The organization’s founder and chairman, Vint Cerf, recruited Bray away from the federal government to become PCI’s executive director by emphasizing the coalition’s positive vision for society—a vision Bray wanted to help shape for his infant son.
“In the summer of 2017, my wife and I welcomed our baby boy, and almost simultaneously, Vint extended the offer for me to join the People-Centered Internet coalition,” Bray says. “I felt a sense of urgency to accept because I believe that disruptive technologies will have an enormous impact on the world in the next 20 years. I want future generations—including my son—to look at the internet with as much hope as we originally did in the 1990s and early 2000s.”
Connecting people, empowering health care
According to PCI, 50 percent of the world will be connected to the internet by 2019. Of course, if half the planet has access to the internet, the other half doesn’t, so expanding connectivity is a key component of PCI’s mission to democratize technology and create access to all the opportunities it affords. To that end, providing connectivity for historically disenfranchised communities is a priority.
“We have been working with Native Americans in the United States to help them get connectivity,” Bray says. “And once that happens, we can strategize about ways to use the internet to improve their access to education, employment and health care. We don’t assume we have all the answers, but we empower the tribes with access to technology and work with them to identify solutions that fit their particular needs. We are also committed to expanding internet access to rural communities as a means to expand their opportunities and achieve economic parity with metropolitan areas.”
In addition to expanding internet access, PCI is focused on promoting the moral and ethical application of technology to industries that are undergoing rapid digital disruption. One example is health care, which is struggling to manage the benefits and risks of digital innovation simultaneously.
“Technology is transforming health care in many positive ways, but as we move toward an era of digital medicine, we need to approach it with eyes wide open,” Bray explains. “For example, personalized medicine allows us to tailor treatments and therapies to the individual, which makes them more effective.”
Bray also recognizes the risks involved in collecting and using data. “We must have safeguards in place to mitigate possible abuses to people’s health and their medical data, as well,” he says, warning that deleting personal, identifiable data is not an absolute protection against the theft or unauthorized sale of patient information. “So [PCI is] empowering consumers to ask the right questions. And we are working with health-care organizations to shape effective, ethical policies around these issues.”
Digital innovation and automation has disrupted employment opportunities in a variety of industries such as manufacturing and retail, and PCI is examining the potential impact of those technologies in the medical field, as well.
“Health-care providers have a responsibility to help employees cope with the expected disruption associated with technological innovations in medicine,” Bray says. “With the productivity benefits of technology, it’s reasonable to assume that more jobs will be displaced than created, at least in the short term. So it’s critical to discuss how that will affect employees’ fiscal and mental well-being. We may be entering an era where we retrain people by pairing them with machines, utilizing innovations such machine learning and AI to maximize benefit for everyone.”
Supporting human rights in the digital era
Beyond expanding connectivity and exploring the moral and ethical impact of technological innovation in specific industries, PCI is focused on how technology will affect human rights in the years to come.
“One of our concerns at PCI is that the internet is no longer seen as just a force for good or for bringing people together,” Bray says. “Is it polarizing us? Pulling us apart? Preventing reasonable conversations and rationale solutions to big problems? It’s essential to ask those questions, and perhaps society will need to make hard choices about the algorithms at the heart of some of these technologies.”
Bray notes the significance of PCI’s work in a month that marks the 70th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (December 10).
“It’s an opportunity to re-examine the internet and to discuss the community norms, human rights and social contracts required in this digital era,” Bray says. “The internet is a reflection of humanity. The technology itself is amoral. It’s how we humans choose to use it that determines whether it’s good or bad.”
Photo credit: Bench Accounting, Unsplash