Our participation in Tech Open Air Berlin this summer was a huge success. We met incredible people, shared critical insights from our work, and hosted a panel satellite event at our HQ on tech and ethics in a moment of crisis. To accompany our video from the week, we sat down with our Director of Engineering, Nehal Shah, to talk about his participation in the satellite event, and what he took away from it.
So, what did you see as the driving theme of the evening?
From my perspective it was tackling the fact that — look, there are a lot of possibilities in tech, and the question we’re faced with more and more is not so much can we do something, but should we? For instance, AI. It offers incredible solutions in a lot of scenarios. But to whose problems? It’s not neutral, nor are the conditions in which it’s being developed. We can’t ignore that. That extends to what’s been happening with tech companies providing facial recognition software for deportation agencies in the US, for example. Whether facial recognition tech can be developed and provided to various actors is probably a less meaningful question than what consequences that has, who it affects, and how.
One point I tried to make was actually about what we can learn from the evolution of car safety. A hundred years ago cars were something like the number one killer in America. But thanks to a long series of innovations and regulation, that’s no longer the case. We’ve done a lot of things to make sure that cars are safer, we have regulation to make sure that we’re building them in a way so that even if they do fail, or if they do crash, we’re doing everything we can to protect the interior and the people using them.
We also talked a good deal about how all of this illustrates the importance of diversity in tech, despite that often being an uphill battle. Bringing diverse voices into the development of technology highlights its blindspots, allows us to ask harder questions, and take experiences less immediate than our own seriously enough to address them.
How do you see diversity or inclusion or difference within the development of technology contributing to that?
I think it’s really about deliberately creating space for dialogue, or effective vehicles for user advocacy. That has to happen between technology makers and technology users. And there are obviously, you know, different paragons that have really pushed for such things — like Ralph Nader really pushed on car safety in the US. You typically have voices emerge in that advocate role. Maybe we don’t need singular figures as voices, but we need effective advocacy mechanisms for technology users, or people that are even our stakeholders when it comes to technology.
You’re describing a sort of dialectical process.
Yeah, I think so. It kind of has to be a dialectical process, really. It’s not going to be zero-sum. You can’t just eliminate one actor in favor of the other, right? These interests exist, and they’re going to continue to exist in one fashion or another. All we can do is to figure out ways to ensure that we’re advocated for or represented in the creation of that technology, in ways that are beneficial for us, or at least not harmful to us. And so, for me, like, I think car safety is a really good example of where the dialectical process really made it what it is. It’s not perfect right now, but it’s a lot better than it was a century ago.
Obviously, Babbel’s not really engaged in something that has the sort of existential implications that cars or certain technologies have. But are there ways in which you see the culture here, people’s thinking here and what they’re working on sort of applying that same sort of pressure, pushing back in some way?
Yes, exactly. Exactly. I think in everything we do, we try to challenge ourselves on behalf of the user and to advocate for them, as much as that’s possible. With any device, and with the development of any technology, you need that advocacy. You need somebody to be able to advocate for the people impacted by that product, whatever it is, and to make sure that their needs are also being reflected in the product.