[MEN]TOR: Kenny Chen (he/him) – Executive Director, Partnership to Advance Responsible Technology (PART)

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We strongly reinforce the message that diversity and inclusion in the tech industry is a need-to-have, not a nice-to-have, especially when you consider how lives and livelihoods have been compromised because of algorithmic biases or negligence from non-representative product teams.

What do you do?

I work with a global, cross-sector network of multidisciplinary experts to guide the responsible development of artificial intelligence and data-driven technologies.

What keeps you passionate in the tech industry?

A combination of hopeful curiosity and existential anxiety. I can’t think of anything as simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying as the tech industry. Technology has always played an important role in shaping our lives and societies, since the dawn of human civilization. However, the exponential advancements of the last several decades (in computing, AI, and cyber-physical systems) have opened the door to unprecedented opportunities and risks. It’s up to each of us to determine whether we use these incredibly powerful tools to solve the world’s greatest problems or exacerbate the dangers and inequities that already exist.

What do you like about the company you currently run/work for?

I co-founded PART with several of my most respected colleagues, all of whom are subject matter experts in different AI-related fields. We formed our nonprofit think-tank to help fill some of the numerous gaps we’ve seen in the way that AI is developed, deployed, and governed locally and globally. It’s a tremendous privilege to work with such an incredible brain trust to pursue the most important mission we can imagine.

What are some initiatives that your company is taking to create a more inclusive workplace?

PART is still a brand-new organization (we launched at the end of May 2019 at the UN AI for Good Summit), so I look forward to creating an inclusive workplace environment as soon as I have enough resources to hire employees. That said, in our consulting work and public programs, we strongly reinforce the message that diversity and inclusion in the tech industry is a need-to-have, not a nice-to-have, especially when you consider how lives and livelihoods have been compromised because of algorithmic biases or negligence from non-representative product teams.

What does being an ally to underrepresented folks in tech mean to you?

I want to convince every person that cares to listen that they have an opportunity and responsibility to learn about AI and the ways that it impacts our lives and society. You don’t need to be a professional software developer or have a PhD to understand how AI is already changing the nature of education, work, and human rights. Furthermore, there is a real, desperate need for more women and minorities to help lead these conversations going forward. Through PGH.AI and other efforts, I am working to illuminate these possibilities for everyone.

What is the importance of making sure the tech community is inclusive?

There are already countless examples of situations where tech companies or researchers have made humiliating, or even harmful mistakes that could have been avoided if they weren’t comprised of practically homogeneous teams. I believe that “ethics” will follow a similar path to how “UI/UX” went from being an obscure rarity to a standard best practice over the last couple of decades. Inclusion will be an ever-more important part of ethical standards.

A lot of people are afraid to publicly learn, but it’s important to be transparent about moments of unlearning. This shows others it’s okay to admit your wrongs in order to grow. Can you share one or more “a-ha!” moments you’ve had where you realized “this is wrong” or “this way of thinking is biased”?

I’ve planned hundreds of events in Pittsburgh, from small meetups to the Thrival Festival, and there have been a few times when I’ve ended up with an all white male panel/speaker lineup. That’s simply not acceptable. In this day and age, there’s no excuse for not having more diverse perspectives, especially when presented on public stages. The talent and thought leadership is out there – you either have to try harder, or reframe the purpose and values of the event you’re hosting.

What results have you seen from your tech equity and advocacy actions?

I can’t take credit for this, but I’ve been really encouraged by the number of people of all backgrounds I’ve seen in the Pittsburgh community who have stepped up and found a mission or a voice in advancing technology ethics, policy, equity, and advocacy. If my work in bringing these issues to light had any impact on their trajectories, I’d be very pleased.

Some research shows that it’s hard to have empathy and, in this case, practice tech advocacy without being exposed to some form of human suffering from someone different from yourself. Have you ever had an experience like this that has helped you to prioritize tech equity in your life and career today?

I’ve had the privilege and opportunity to meet many people from around the world, who face very different sets of challenges, especially when it comes to their relationship to technology. My experience has been shaped by the inner-city schoolteachers, rural children, Appalachian coal miners, Haitian health workers, Hong Kong protestors, and countless others who I know struggle daily with navigating the fast-evolving technological landscape—some barred from it, others oppressed by it. For every story that makes a headline, there are hundreds that go unnoticed. It’s important that we recognize those biases and blind spots.

What is some advice you’d give to other men in tech, older or younger, who are seeking ways to be more inclusive with their actions?

Don’t let hubris erode what you’ve contributed to building. You didn’t build it alone, and it won’t stay standing if you don’t give others their due respect.

What is some advice you’d share with diversity-starved organizations?

Inclusion starts with showing up and meeting people where they’re at. Talk doesn’t go far.



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