Interview Of The Week

Interview Of The Week: Vilas Dhar, Patrick J. McGovern Foundation

Vilas Dhar is President and Trustee of the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, a global, $1.5 billion philanthropy that aims to advance the frontiers of artificial intelligence, data science and social impact. He is also Co-Chair of the Global AI Action Alliance at the World Economic Forum and an expert contributor to OECD.AI. Fusing his experience as a lawyer, an investor, and a philanthropist, Dhar has dedicated his professional pursuits to exploring solutions for some of the world’s largest challenges like child labor, refugee crises, and data privacy and sovereignty. Prior to joining the Foundation, Dhar founded and led two successful social impact organizations, including a field-leading nonprofit incubator and a sustainable public interest law firm. He has also been a leading contributor in the academic study of technology for good as the Gleitsman Fellow on Social Change at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Practitioner Resident on Artificial Intelligence at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center in Italy, and a Senior Fellow of the Berggruen Institute. Dhar holds a J.D. from NYU School of Law, a Master’s in Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and dual Bachelor’s degrees in Biomedical Engineering and Computer Science from the University of Illinois. He is currently completing his doctoral dissertation at the University of Birmingham, on novel approaches to economic and policy infrastructure for a data enabled society to support and empower vulnerable populations. Dhar spoke on several panels during the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos earlier this month (including one on AI and Climate Adaptability moderated by The Innovator). Under his direction the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation is collaborating with Deloitte and the World Economic Forum on the creation of a new Centre for Trustworthy Technology in Austin, Texas. Dhar recently spoke to The Innovator about why it is crucial for civil society to help develop and have access to AI tools and how corporates can help.

Q:  OpenAI, the research institute behind ChatGPT, originally had as its mission to ensure that artificial general intelligence  “benefits all of humanity” but it was turned into a commercial venture and Microsoft, which recently said it was going to invest  billions more in the venture, now intends to embed its technology into its products to go head- to-head with Google and other competitors. Are you still confident the technology will be harnessed for humanity?

VD: We need to ensure that civil society has a voice in the way technology is created and used, and consider what it means to put human dignity at the center of new technological solutions. The danger is that the next generation of products are created in a total vacuum by people who are not on the frontlines and do not understand its use at the points of vulnerabilities.  A crucial missing element is an institution whose primary role is to allow civil society to observe and input on technological development. It is important to involve communities in their creation and be transparent and publicly accountable to build trust between actors and share alignment on the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We need to do this right at the frontier before companies start deploying technologies in the wild.

Q: Is OpenAI’s ChatGPT ready for prime time?

VD: The challenge isn’t that it is not perfect – but that it’s just good enough to be dangerous. We can fix that, but we can’t fix human dynamics around these technologies unless we foster a sense of digital literacy, agency, and ethical use.  I’m excited to see ChatGPT as a model of what’s possible in education, industry, and for human augmentation – but we have a ways to go before we understand necessary guardrails and the technology’s inherent limitations.

Q: How do we make the development of new technologies more inclusive?

VD: Many non-profits conduct extensive research and collect lots of data; what they may lack is the infrastructure, resources, and internal technical capacity to turn that data into scalable insights, and from insight into action. This is where collaborations with governments and corporates can help.

Q: How do you see non-profits using AI?

VD: AI can be used to empower front line defendersto cope with local problems such as predicting fires, flooding and draught or helping with ocean preservation and to combat illegal fishing.  Nonprofits should not be seen as consumers  but rather as solution providers who can design fit for purpose technologies in collaboration with tech talent.

Q: What do you see as the role of corporates?

VD: We can’t create the future without corporate participation because companies hold the tools that are the fundamental levers for moving economic systems. Many of the very same tools and expertise companies use to compete in the marketplace can also be applied toward addressing humanity’s greatest challenges. Companies can make a huge difference when they share their knowledge and resources with the non-profit world. In addition to furthering positive social outcomes, there is also a business case for it – companies can use some of the data collected by non-profits to better understand and develop business in new markets.  For example, consider the case of consumer/healthcare insights in frontier markets, where we’ve found that corporates entering the market need to start from working with local organizations to understand the gaps and opportunity space for primary and specialized health care delivery.  Often, that knowledge-based collaboration can lead to the design of tools specific to the needs of those communities – and create a longer-term path to commercial market entry.  We’ve seen this example in Vietnam, where we facilitated a collaboration between a NYSE listed health company and a global nonprofit to create an AI-powered symptom checker and provider location tool to connect low-income consumers to high quality healthcare.

Q: You are about to announce a new round of grants. What will they be used for?

VD: To turn conversations into action. We are allocating $62.8 million in investments to accelerate civil society’s adoption of digital transformation and enhance AI and data-driven capabilities across the social sector. This portfolio will drive digital equity, strengthen digital health interventions, advance data-driven climate solutions, and facilitate the democratization of data.

Q: What do you want the key takeaways to be from this interview?

VD:  This is a critical moment in society’s adoption of AI technologies – and we need to get this right. The social transformations happening because of AI require us to build ethical frameworks for the world we aspire to. With multisectoral collaboration, we need to get the people who understand the problems together with those who have the capacity to deliver and scale the solutions and the technology.  The tools, practices, and values we forge today will define the course of human equity and dignity for the decades ahead.

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About the author

Jennifer L. Schenker

Jennifer L. Schenker, an award-winning journalist, has been covering the global tech industry from Europe since 1985, working full-time, at various points in her career for the Wall Street Journal Europe, Time Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Red Herring and BusinessWeek. She is currently the editor-in-chief of The Innovator, an English-language global publication about the digital transformation of business. Jennifer was voted one of the 50 most inspiring women in technology in Europe in 2015 and 2016 and was named by Forbes Magazine in 2018 as one of the 30 women leaders disrupting tech in France. She has been a World Economic Forum Tech Pioneers judge for 20 years. She lives in Paris and has dual U.S. and French citizenship.