Technology is a Force for Good: Notes from a Conversation Between David Siegel and Katy Knight

Posted on Thursday, May 28th, 2020

Last updated July 23, 2020

Earlier this year, SFE Chairman and Founder David Siegel sat down with our Executive Director Katy Knight for a conversation on the power of technology as a force for good in shaping our society. The conversation was hosted by the Society for Science and the Public, and was a part of the digital program for the Virtual Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). Every year, ISEF brings together high school science fair finalists from around the world to share projects and to compete for awards, prizes, and scholarships. It’s an opportunity for science students to share their work with an international audience, and this year, the fair was moved to an online format in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Speakers participated in virtual panels and interviews, and attendees had the opportunity to explore projects in an entirely digital setting.

We’ve compiled some key highlights from David and Katy’s interview below, and posted the full video of their conversation below. We’ve also included timestamps for each of the highlighted takeaways so you can navigate between segments more easily.

SFE Executive Director Katy Knight and SFE Founder and Chairman David Siegel discuss technology’s power as a force for good at the 2020 Virtual Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair

On prioritizing between different urgent problems (Timestamp: 7:20)
Participants in ISEF are students of science and technology, and increasingly well positioned to start taking on some of the most pressing issues we face as a society – problems as diverse as climate change, poverty, and the COVID-19 pandemic. But how can we prioritize among those problems, and how do we decide which of them needs to be addressed first? David’s advice to participants is straightforward: Pursue something that you’re really interested in instead of the problems that you think need attention. He cites passion as a great motivator: “If I’m working on something that I’m really, deeply interested in,” says David, “I get so much more done.” There’s no shortage of critical problems, and one of the most reliable ways to drive a strong outcome is by focusing curiosity on the subjects that we’re individually passionate about.

On the versatility of the scientific method (Timestamp: 12:30)
David’s career (and SFE’s grantmaking strategy) have been substantially informed by the scientific method, and while it might sound abstract to apply scientific thinking to a non-scientific subject, it’s a straightforward way to make decisions using evidence and thoughtful processes. The scientific method can be applied in almost any scenario – from following a recipe, to guiding one’s own education. You can learn more about how SFE applies the scientific method to our grantmaking here.

On technology’s responsibility to improve lives (Timestamp: 14:20)
While the internet and new technologies have had a significant positive impact on some parts of our society, it’s impossible to ignore the disruptions they’re also responsible for. Great advancements don’t always create a straight path to a positive outcome, and that’s why it’s important for all technologists to think about the ways that their creations impact all members of society – and not just those who stand to benefit.

“I’m interested in a movement where all technologists feel that they have a responsibility to society, and not just to release technology upon society,” says David. This is the belief that underlies SFE’s work in Public Interest Technology, which you can learn about in greater detail here.

On innovation, and training yourself to think innovatively (Timestamp: 19:15)
Contrary to the idea that creativity is “something you’re born with,” you can actually learn to be innovative! David offers a few key ways to set yourself up to be innovative:

  • Give yourself time to let your mind wander
  • Deliberately expose yourself to a variety of different kinds of information
  • Train yourself to think outside the box

David goes on to cite innovations that he’s observed in computer science since he was a student, and describes how the field has grown to include studies that connect computing with other fields altogether, like biology, physics, and cognitive science. This type of cross-sector innovation is exemplified in the work of SFE grantee Josh Tenenbaum of the MIT Center for Brains, Minds, and Machines, which uses computational modeling and behavioral experiments in tandem to reveal new insights about the ways people learn, reason, and perceive the world around them. “When you’re looking at innovation, you’re really seeing two things that aren’t typically connected being brought together,” says David. “You can only truly be innovative if you have the opportunity to understand how these things might be connected.”