Behind the Scenes

‘A Day of Reckoning’

A look at how some events really are changing the world.

Our cover story this month showcases three international events, two of which launched this year to address the challenge of human migration from completely different disciplines. All three hinge on bringing together perspectives from all over the world to focus on solutions to our most pressing issues.

Our complex problems “cannot be tackled by individual nation states,” Felix Rundel told me. Rundel, who organizes the Falling Walls conference on future breakthroughs in science and society — the third event profiled in our story — said the aim in attracting attendees from 80 countries is to include “as many diverse voices as possible.”

The good work these events do is directly related to their international inclusivity — so important to recognize in light of our current nationalistic tendencies. But let’s focus for a minute on the “good work” part.

When Rundel shared the kinds of topics Falling Walls explores and how it approaches those subjects, I noticed he paired ethics with AI twice.

That’s not just to create an interesting dynamic, when you consider how technological innovations are proliferating devoid of ethical considerations. “Data science, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and related technologies are now facing a day of reckoning,” write the authors — who include previous Convening Leaders speaker and data scientist Hilary Mason — of a recent O’Reilly Media post It has
become clear over the past few years, they say, “that the products and technologies we have created have been weaponized and used against us.”

The authors point out that ethics — sorely lacking in data science — is an essential part of professional education in many other fields. Those include medicine, physics, biology, and engineering, for which “professional societies were formed to maintain and enforce codes of conduct; government regulatory processes have established standards and penalties for work that is detrimental to society.”

They recommend a host of ways to integrate ethics into data science — from making ethics an essential part of the technical education curriculum to creating a corporate culture where people feel free to escalate concerns about technological developments. But the “best single thing you can do to further data ethics,” they say, is to talk about it in meetings, at lunch, and over dinner. Taken in context, I believe they are talking about staff and one-on-one meetings, rather than encouraging data scientists to attend conferences that meaningfully explore the topic.

In other words, they don’t spell out our industry’s role in moving society in the right direction, although there’s a plug at the top of the post to attend an “ethical foundation for the AI-driven future” session at an upcoming data conference.

When I was introduced to the meetings industry nearly 16 years ago, my mentor, Peter Shure, shared two important facts with me: We’re the largest source of continuing education for adults, and we’re largely invisible. Despite that stubborn lack of recognition as an industry, we know how we’re making this world a better place. Keep passing it on.

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.