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. He recently spoke to The Innovator about how CEOs, policymakers, and civil society leaders can responsibly develop AI and use tech for good.
Q: How is the Foundation trying to build public awareness of the potential opportunities and impact of emergent technology on social infrastructure, corporate responsibility, and human behavior?
VD: As a civil society institution that advances the ethical design, development, and deployment of artificial intelligence and data science, we provide $75 million annually to non-profit organizations worldwide. We do this with the vision of shaping an inclusive, equitable, and sustainable future. We try to be the translation layer between what tech promises and what it means to society at large. Right now, we are right at the center of two trends: non-profits are looking at how to apply technology more deftly at the frontlines of climate change, malnutrition, and healthcare delivery. At the same time, the C-Suites at large corporations are looking at how technology can improve their supply chains, give them a more granular view of their customers, and introduce new revenue streams. Though these groups see the problems they grapple with quite differently, the tech – the tool – is in fact the same. The Foundation serves as a lens to the human consequences of these applications and as a bridge between these two worlds.
Q: How does the Global AI Action Alliance (GAIA) fit into your mission?
VD: GAIA is one of a suite of initiatives the Foundation is a part of that tries to connect the different landscapes. GAIA, which is being supported by a grant from the Foundation, aims to speed adoption of trustworthy and transparent AI across all sectors. It invites participation from business, governments, civil society, standards bodies, and academia to try and develop a coherent multilateral approach to setting meaningful benchmarks for bias, fairness, explainability, and other metrics of responsibly built AI systems. The idea is to develop a mark for the trusted use of AI systems that would be grounded in accepted principles that are practical and measurable, internationally recognized, and built with trust and transparency. This type of independent certification may be mandated in areas like the EU in future. At the Foundation, we’d prefer to see organizations voluntarily opt-in to something like this. That means we need to work together now to bring transparency and innovation to AI governance.
Q: What other sort of initiatives is the Foundation involved with?
VD: We are really focused on regulation of AI not because we want specific policies implemented, but because we believe it is important to have more robust discussion between corporate leaders, technology companies, non-profits, and government officials. Additionally, much of our work with grant partners focuses on the applications of AI to pressing global challenges including vaccination distribution and early-stage cancer detection, as well as identifying and removing bias from emergent tech tools that are used in interviews and hiring decisions.
Q: Are government leaders versed enough in technology to be able to craft good legislation?
VD: From what we’ve heard, policymakers are eager to learn. We’re partnering with Stanford University’s Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (HAI) Institute to support the implementation of rigorous education programs to prepare policymakers with an understanding of AI technologies and trends, as well as with Oxford University’s Institute for Ethics in AI and the Harvard Belfer Center’s Technology and Public Purpose Project to support cross-sector collaboration on AI design and implementation. Non-partisan education on these momentous tools is important for policymakers and citizens alike. It’s our hope to inspire digital literacy in K-12 settings, nontraditional educational pathways, and beyond, so that everyone can be informed about how these tools affect each of us every day.
Q: Can you point to some examples of Foundation funded projects that are using AI for good?
VD: One of our goals is supporting governments in building better data infrastructure. The Foundation has just issued a grant to the Coleridge Initiative, which works with U.S. federal and state governments to ensure that their data is leveraged most effectively to make evidence-based decisions for the public good. This is on top of work we do to fund civil society initiatives, such as a grant to New York University and MuckRock to bring an innovative AI tool to under-resourced U.S. newsrooms that will significantly scale up their investigative capacity and democratize access to government records. We are also working with UN Global Pulse, partnering with private sector actors on a global data access initiative to enable innovation at a systems level. The plan is to generate public data sets at scale that are transparent and open so we can build analytics, deploy recommendations, and quickly turn them into action.
Q: How do corporates fit into the equation?
VD: Large multinational companies are piloting AI to solve specific problems instead of implementing AI that informs their organizational strategy. Their challenge is how to extract this amazing value proposition and define principles that will allow them to use these tools at scale.The world of AI is accelerating – there is no time for companies to take a ‘wait and see’ approach. The AI principles we define today will guide long-term sustainability and impact for the next decade. Now is the time to step in to understand these tools and to commit to using them to make the world better. At the Foundation, we want to bridge the gap between the needs of C-suites and boards and civil society by convening space for conversation and progress.I often consider the words of Martin Luther King Jr., who spoke of ‘the fierce urgency of now.’ We have major societal challenges – but we also have powerful tools. If we approach with urgency, we can use these tools make dramatic progress for our world.
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