Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Caltech: Founding Values

Address on receiving Caltech’s Distinguished Alumni Award
May 18, 2013

Caltech was founded to give back to society through science and engineering, to discover knowledge and apply that knowledge. There was tremendous optimism about the value of training engineers and scientists and how that would benefit all of humanity, especially in the southern California of a century ago which was reshaped through the wonders of technology.
Jim in a suit behind a podium with the word Ccaltech"

Caltech’s small size makes its faculty and students incredibly agile when it comes to understanding a broad array of fields: there is a need here to be able to explain your work, and to understand the work of others. That’s the Caltech advantage! Richard Feynman once tried to reduce an advanced physics concept to a freshman lecture. When Feynman found he couldn’t do so, he said that meant “that we really don’t understand it.” The first lecture I heard as a freshman at Caltech was delivered by Feynman on the topic of liquid helium three, and I was certain he did understand the topic! Being a Caltech freshman makes you confident for the rest of your life: if someone cannot explain something to you, that means that they really don’t understand it!

Caltech feeds an intense curiosity, a burning desire to understand, to grapple with hard problems and to own them! As Feynman said when asked about winning the Nobel Prize: “The prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use it [my work].”

Jim Fruchterman receiving the Caltech Distinguished Alumni Award from Caltech President Jean Lou Chameau, May 18, 2013
More than anything else, that pleasure in finding things out has been Caltech’s gift to me in my work as an entrepreneur and a social entrepreneur. Whether it’s turning optical pattern recognition for targeting missiles into reading systems for the blind, building the largest online library for people who are blind or dyslexic, doing the analysis for the United Nations to determine how many people have actually been killed in the civil war in Syria, assisting in the dramatic trial of the former dictator of Guatemala who was convicted of genocide just last week, modeling for conservationists the best way to run field biodiversity projects, or matching volunteers from Silicon Valley’s top software companies with open source social good projects, the team at Benetech, the nonprofit tech company I founded and lead, is fueled by these Caltech values. The thrill of solving problems, of figuring something out, and bringing that understanding into the service of humanity.

However, my concern today is that technology professionals have drifted over the last century away from directly applying the benefits of science and technology to the needs of all of humanity. The need to get practical, to find a business model that provides massive financial return to investors, means that many great ideas get put back on the shelf when the inventors realize that they aren’t a fit for the venture capital model. Now, as a successful tech entrepreneur, I’ve benefited from California’s incredible venture machine, which creates immense value for individuals and for society. Of course: from its founding Caltech has been a testament to the generosity of donors who succeeded in business. But, we can’t fully realize the promise of Caltech and institutions like it if we only market our products to the richest 1% or 5% of the world’s population. It wasn’t too many years ago when our pharmaceutical industry more or less argued that people with AIDS in Africa should die rather than to license their medicines for low cost manufacture.

I want to advocate for “giving the sleeves off your vest” strategy! Top tech companies like Google, Facebook and IBM have figured out how to make vast quantities of money by giving away their core product, or building products on top of open source and free software. Keep the business focus on those top markets that justify the venture capital returns, that feed our successful business enterprises. But, allow the benefits of technology to reach far beyond the top of the pyramid. To the greatest extent possible, be open. Support open data, open access to research, open content and open source.

When I ask the owners of intellectual property to license their creations to my nonprofit, for free, for these markets where they have already decided that they can’t make money, they say yes: 80% of the time! People are immensely proud of their creations and would love to see them used to benefit more people. Think of the freedom that can be promoted by greater sharing of the benefits of science and technology: freedom from hunger, from thirst, from illness, freedom from ignorance, illiteracy, from lack of education, freedom from human rights abuses, from tyranny.

If we can do that, by being as open and sharing as we can be, we’ll better realize the founding values of Caltech and its motto: “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free!”

Friday, May 17, 2013

Martín Burt’s Best Kept Secret

Martín Burt is one of the greatest social entrepreneurs I’ve had the pleasure of knowing for many years. So I was recently taken by surprise when I discovered by mere coincidence that he had become the Chief of Staff for the Interim President of Paraguay, Federico Franco! It turns out Martín was asked by Franco to join his administration when he took office in June 2012. He will serve in this position until Franco finishes his term in August 2013. I found it incredible that almost no one in the social entrepreneurial field knew about this and decided a blog post was in order!
Martin Burt at SWF10

Martín is a pioneer in applying microfinance, youth entrepreneurship and economic self-reliance methodologies to address chronic poverty. A citizen of Paraguay, he is the founder of Fundación Paraguaya, a financially self-sustaining social enterprise that promotes entrepreneurs in Paraguay and Africa through microcredit and entrepreneurship education. He is also one of the creators of the environmental protection movement in Paraguay, having co-founded the Moisés Bertoni Conservation Foundation and the Mbaracayú Biosphere Reserve, two of the country’s prominent nature conservation institutions.

In 1985, he started Fundación Paraguaya in order to develop social innovations that could help create jobs and increase family income among the country’s poor. It was a daring venture: Paraguay was then still under a military dictatorship and it was extremely difficult to advance social work. Fundación Paraguaya was the country’s first microfinance program and first development NGO. As Paraguay transitioned to democracy, it went on to become a leader in microenterprise development and is known today as an award winning organization that supports thousands of small businesses through three interrelated strategies: a microfinance program aimed at emerging micro-entrepreneurs; an economic education program for children and youth; and an agricultural high school that teaches organic agriculture and entrepreneurial skills to low-income youth from rural areas.

Martín has worked tirelessly to disseminate the social innovations he has created in Paraguay throughout the world. Just to give you a few examples: He is a co-founder of Teach a Man to Fish, a global network that promotes “education that pays for itself,” partnering with dozens of organizations around the world to establish self-sufficient schools in rural areas that teach independence and sustainability to young people from poor families. His activities with the World Economic Forum include participation on the Education Global Agenda Council and he is a university professor of social entrepreneurship in the U.S. and Africa.

In addition to his work in civil society, Martín served as president of the Paraguayan-American Chamber of Commerce, Vice Minister of Commerce and as Mayor of Asunción, the capital city of Paraguay. As mayor of Asunción, he won a major victory for democracy when he called in garbage trucks and bulldozers to surround the Congress building while the army was busy shooting people in response to a popular uprising. I only found this last part out because some documentary film makers working with the Skoll Foundation uncovered this exciting event in Martín’s past: he never mentioned it!

He is the recipient of numerous prestigious awards: these include, among others, the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship, the Outstanding Social Entrepreneur Award from the Schwab Foundation, the Ashoka Changemakers Award, the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) Award, the Microfinance Award from the Inter-American Development Bank and UNESCO Best Practice Award. And there’s more: Martín is the author of books on economics, development, municipal government, education and even poetry! You can learn more about him by watching the short film I mentioned above, one of the Sundance Institute and the Skoll Foundation’s “Stories of Change.”

Somehow, this pillar of the world of social enterprise has successfully kept his position as Chief of Staff to Paraguay’s President below the radar. To my inquiry about his current role Martín replied:
“Well, you know how things happen… I was asked by our new President to serve as his chief of staff until August 2013, when he finishes his term. So I asked for a leave of absence from Fundación Paraguaya and dove in. I am having a lot of fun promoting key policies related to competitiveness, corruption and poverty elimination.”
Congratulations, Martín! You are an inspiration to all of us and we look forward to your future work that no doubt will continue to make the world a better place.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Technology for All: From Gandhi to TED - Part 2

Technology has the potential to improve the lives of millions across the world. Unfortunately, most companies won’t pursue projects without the promise of big profits and the people who need tech tools the most often can’t afford them. In this two-part series I explore the concept of “Technology for All” and Benetech’s commitment to both ensuring that the technology required to meet a social need is developed and that it reaches far beyond the richest 10 percent of people who can most afford it.

You can read Part 1, here.

It all started with the TED’s opening session, “Progress Enigma.” The session posed the questions: “What is the future of work?” and “Is the innovation growth accelerating?”

In his TED talk, Northwestern University economist Robert Gordon replied to these questions with the argument that innovation isn’t likely to get us out of the global economic stagnation and that economic growth itself – contrary to the assumption that has become nearly universal since the 1950s – might not be a continuous process that will persist forever.

MIT economist Erik Brynjolfsson then countered this view with a talk that advanced the exact opposite argument: Income may be falling, but creative productivity and innovation are as strong as ever. The benefits of technology take longer to root than we expect and we have a bias against the future: we simply can’t foresee the things we haven’t invented yet.

TED curator Chris Anderson then engaged the two economists in a debate. Gordon asked Brynjolfsson about the value of some of the innovations he mentioned in his talk, from highly intelligent machines like IBM’s Watson to free streamed music. These technologies, Gordon pointed out, make money for their inventors and owners but put multitudes of people out of employment. At this point, I couldn’t help but think about my conversation with Sen. Wofford—I could hear Gandhi’s voice!

Robert Gordon, Chris Anderson and Erik Brynjolfsson at TED2013

Gordon also asked Brynjolfsson: What good is a world where we have machine intelligence and free music but no gainful employment and a broken education system? Brynjolfsson countered with some poignant answers, but he, too, acknowledged that optimism has its limits. At the end, these two very different-thinking economists seemed to converge on one point: We are witnessing a great decoupling of productivity from employment and wealth from work.

Technology is racing ahead, but leaving 99 percent of society behind.

It’s true that difficult challenges lie ahead of us. And yet, I believe that the “new machine age” that Brynjolfsson describes holds tremendous promise. I believe it can help catalyze much-needed systemic change and forever remove the most persistent barriers that prevent people from living a full life. We need that kind of change—for the good of all humanity!

Both my conversation with Sen. Wofford and the conversation I witnessed between these two economists at TED reminded me of how this is such an exciting time for social enterprises—and especially for us at Benetech. We’re operating at the nexus of multiple high-change and high-impact industries, from the mission-driven technology development sector to the social sector users who utilize that technology to “be the change they wish to see.”

Technology has redefined what’s possible for our society and each week brings news of organizations doing great things with it for the social good. In addition, now more than ever, those who have benefited greatly from technology are giving back. For example, the Giving Pledge campaign that began with efforts by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett is encouraging the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to commit to giving the majority of their wealth to philanthropy. It’s a powerful example of this “brave new world” we live in, where private resources are deployed to create and sustain public goods.

So, yes, I do feel optimistic. I believe there’s a growing recognition that the world has become a global village and it’s our responsibility to see to it that all “villagers” can improve their lives. Here, too, as I learned from Sen. Wofford, Gandhi’s philosophy is at the heart of the matter. Gandhi firmly believed that economic justice is key to non-violent independence. Creating a just economy, he proposed, meant abolishing the conflict between capital and labor – exactly the source of our problem today (as both Gordon and Brynjolfsson agree). Gandhi therefore called on society’s wealthy individuals to act as trustees, that is, owners of riches not in their own right, but on behalf of the poor (on Gandhi’s theory of trusteeship see, for example, A.K. Dasgupta, Gandhi’s Economic Thought, Routledge, 1996, Chapter 6, esp. pp. 118-23).

As social entrepreneurship moves from niche to mainstream, and the social enterprise economy grows, Benetech looks forward to growing our impact. There are many social needs that continue to go unmet and we have both a passion and a solid track record of successfully meeting those needs for the benefit of all of humanity.

And, I hope more and more of the people behind our terrific technological advances heed Gandhi’s call, to see all of humanity benefits from our incredible technological innovations.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Technology for All: From Gandhi to TED - Part 1

Technology has the potential to improve the lives of millions across the world. Unfortunately, most companies won’t pursue projects without the promise of big profits and the people who need tech tools the most often can’t afford them. In this two-part series I explore the concept of “Technology for All” and Benetech’s commitment to both ensuring that the technology required to meet a social need is developed and that it reaches far beyond the 10 percent of people who can afford it.

Gandhi, Technology and Economic Justice

I often travel to Washington, D.C. to raise awareness and advocate for the work we’re doing here at Benetech. On a recent trip to Washington, I had the pleasure of meeting with retired Senator Harris Wofford (D-PA). It was an incredibly memorable meeting—one I took much away from.

Jim Fruchterman meeting with Sen. Harris Wofford
Sen. Wofford is remarkable, having performed so many exemplary deeds of service for our nation. He volunteered for the Army Air Corps in World War II and was a friend and adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr. He was President of two colleges and Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Labor and Industry. He served as a U.S. Senator, helped launch the Peace Corps and led the Corporation for National and Community Service. Last February, Sen. Wofford received the 2012 Presidential Citizens Medal from President Obama for his seven decades of public service.

After visiting India in 1949, Wofford became a lifelong advocate of Gandhian nonviolence. He even co-wrote a book with his late wife Clare, India Afire (1951), which urged the civil rights movement in America to adopt Gandhi’s strategy of nonviolent action (see this correspondence between Wofford and King). In fact, Wofford reminisces that “the little claim to fame in those days” that he enjoyed most was that King joked occasionally that he was “the only lawyer volunteering to help him go to jail instead of using all the tricks of the trade to keep him out” (for example, see p. 4 in the proceedings of this program on “Civil Rights, Politics and the Law” by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars).

During my conversation with him, Sen. Wofford immediately connected with Benetech’s vision of a world in which technology benefits all of humanity, remarking that Gandhi would have appreciated our work! I was surprised to hear that, because as far as I knew, Gandhi was famous for his criticism of technology (though he didn’t use the word “technology” – he spoke about machinery and the process of mechanization). Sen. Wofford explained how Gandhi had elaborated on his criticism of machinery, relating it to his doctrine of nonviolence. His point was that technology should benefit all of society. It wasn’t technology per se that Gandhi rejected; it was the fact that technology tended to concentrate the production of wealth in the hands of a few.

Gandhi distinguished between machinery used for mass production and machinery used for production for the masses. The former under free enterprise, Gandhi observed, often made the rich richer and the poor poorer. What Gandhi favored was technology aimed at eradication of poverty and creation of employment. He said:
“What I object to is the craze for machinery, not machinery as such. The craze is for what they call labor-saving machinery. Men go on ‘saving labor’ till thousands are without work and thrown on the open streets to die of starvation. I want to save time and labor, not for a fraction of mankind, but for all. I want the concentration of wealth, not in the hands of a few, but in the hands of all. Today, machinery merely helps a few to ride on the backs of millions. The impetus behind it all is not the philanthropy to save labor, but greed. It is against this constitution of things that I am fighting with all my might” (as quoted in S. Radhakrishnan, Mahatma Gandhi: Essays and Reflections, Sangam Books, 1998: p. 348).
As a pragmatic idealist, I find this message so uplifting and relevant to the work we do at Benetech. We believe in the potential of technology to improve – or even transform – the lives of all people around the world. And we also believe that it shouldn’t be just the privileged few who can afford that beneficial technology. That’s why we develop tools purely focused on the social good and, more broadly, have helped catalyze a movement of social entrepreneurs.

After all, what good is a world where we have snazzy gadgets, but glaring social needs that continue to go unaddressed?

A few days after my meeting with the Senator I arrived at Long Beach for the start of the TED Conference. To my amazement, TED’s kickoff debate about the future of progress had a major connection to my conversation with Sen. Wofford, to Gandhi and to the debate around technology’s effect on our society and our economy.

Check back for Part 2 of this series, where I explore the conversation at TED.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Poisoning the Treaty for the Blind

The Obama Administration is turning its back on people with disabilities--and I'm outraged. I'm an engineer and social entrepreneur, trying to make the world a better place for people with disabilities, and I rarely step into the role of vocal advocate. But when you see behavior that is so unjust, you just have to speak out against it. Here is what is happening.

For years, international negotiations have been moving forward on what many have come to know as the "Treaty for the Blind." The goal of the treaty is to make it possible for people who are blind, or have other print disabilities, to get access to the books they need for education, employment and inclusion in society--no matter where they live. It's something we already do, with great success, in the United States. Early versions of the treaty embodied this principle, and in addition, would ease the international transfer of accessible books for people with disabilities.

In the end, a good treaty would mean real progress, and allow accessible books to reach millions of disabled people in other countries. Extending our own principles--that should be the United States' negotiating position.

Now, the progress made is all in jeopardy. Private interests have been hard at work to insert poison pills in the treaty, such as provisions that make the treaty either unpalatable for many countries to sign on to it or too complex to implement. It's a terrible case of private interest trumping the public good.

In the last few months we've seen the trade delegations from the United States and the European Union, at the behest of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), suddenly changed course and start advocating for positions that are contrary to current U.S. law--positions that would be hard for me to imagine passing our Congress. It has gotten to the point where many observers of the negotiations, being held at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in Geneva, believe that it's turning into a "Treaty to Protect Rightsholders from the Blind!"

Why does this matter? Because at the rate we're going, we'll end up with a Treaty that doesn't help the blind, but instead advances the intellectual property agenda of the MPAA. It would be an absolute shame for this to happen.

The MPAA has claimed, in a public statement, that they are only seeking "balance." Are you as confused as I am about that? One of the most powerful industries on the planet, which already has loads of treaties and laws protecting its interests, needs to find balance against some of the most economically and information disadvantaged people on the planet? Especially since the Treaty for the Blind, if it were written to actually help the blind, would comply with all of those treaties and laws. And, that's not even mentioning that fact that the MPAA has already gotten their content excluded from the Treaty years ago. That's what the MPAA calls "balance?"

I feel quite strongly about this because of how well a balanced copyright law can work, and does work, right here in the United States. Our Bookshare library is allowed to scan just about any book needed by a person who is blind or print-disabled: we now have 190,000 of the most in-demand books and textbooks needed in accessible forms like braille, large print, and audio output. Today, as new books are produced, they are "born digital." We have the policies and we have the technology to make sure that, as Bookshare's General Manager Betsy Beaumon says, "All materials that are born digital are born accessible." We are at a point where accessibility can and should be the default mode for all books.

So, in the MPAA's "balanced" world, a system that works well in the United States--and helps hundreds of thousands of people--should be advocated against by our trade delegation? Huh?

To give you an idea of the poison pills being advocated for by the MPAA, publishers, and now the U.S. trade delegation, I've outlined the most notable ones below:

1. Commercial Availability Requirements. This poison pill says that if a book is commercially available in an accessible format, it can't be provided by a library to a person with a disability. This is equivalent to walking into a public library and finding padlocks on all the books with a note that says: "If you want to read it, buy it." With a commercial availability requirement, libraries like Bookshare, with hundreds of thousands of accessible books available to people with print disabilities, would have to go through such complex bureaucracy that we couldn't afford to serve people outside the U.S. under a Treaty. The World Blind Union's lead negotiator pointed out how these provisions would, in practice, stop Bookshare from serving blind people in India.

2. The "Three-Step Test" Chokehold. The three-step test is part of international copyright law meant to allow countries to reflect their own values in their copyright exceptions. The United States' copyright exception for the blind is a shining example of something that complies with the three-step test. So what are the negotiators trying to do? They are working to alter the very meaning of the three-step test, changing the language of the test to the point of which it will put a chokehold on a country's ability to make broader exceptions to copyrights. Which leads to #3.

3. Conflicts with American Law. Simply put--the US won't sign it. Our trade delegation is now advocating for a Treaty that would require, if ratified, the U.S. Congress to gut our model copyright exception. Essentially, the Treaty would be too poisonous for the U.S. to swallow. It's clear to everyone that if we couldn't even get the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, which was pretty much identical to our own Americans with Disabilities Act, ratified by the Senate, a poisoned Treaty for the Blind has no chance of ratification.

What it all boils down to is this: Content owners, such as the MPAA, are advocating for stronger, more clearly defined protections...for themselves. That's their version of balance--trying to use a Treaty for the Blind as a tactic to advance their broader agenda. And it's shameful that instead of being honest about their intentions, they instead accuse groups like the World Blind Union--who are pretty much focused on making the world better for blind people--of trying to "undermine the global marketplace." Americans who care about accessibility need to let the Obama Administration know they don't want a poisoned Treaty!

This blog was originally published in the Huffington Post.