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How Can Silicon Valley Help Save The World?

June 15, 2017, 1:19 PM UTC
Stanford University
Courtesy of Stanford University

Retired Stanford computer science professor Terry Winograd is known as much for what he’s done as whom he’s taught. A renowned expert on artificial intelligence long before AI became sexy in the corner office, Winograd advised Larry Page on his graduate research at Stanford. Page repaid his teacher by asking him to advise Google, for which Winograd reaped riches in the form of Google (GOOGL) stock.

It may come as a bit of a surprise, then, that Winograd is gently biting the hand that enriched him, namely the technology community. He’s an admirer of a book by former Microsoft (MSFT) researcher Kentaro Toyama called Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology. In a speech this weekend to the American Jewish World Service, a relief organization, Winograd praised Toyama for recognizing that technology companies don’t so much to change the world as amplify changes that are already underway.

Winograd was being honored by AJWS, which he has supported financially. He was introduced at the event by another famous former student, Marissa Mayer. Winograd’s point wasn’t so much to diminish the gains of technology as to urge more people to apply its lessons of success to achieving true social change. Relief organizations like AJWS, he argued, behave like good tech investors. They make small investments in programs that support leaders in the developing world, who will then have a large impact on the population. AJWS, said Winograd, fosters networks-just like good tech investors-because a network is more powerful than an individual actor. Good investors look for “game-changing” ideas, Winograd noted. AJWS advocates for rights because an expansion of rights leads to “fundamental change” in society.

Entrepreneurs like Peter Thiel have groused that too many inventors focus on creating better games for smartphones rather than making planes fly faster or ending disease. Terry Winograd makes a different case, that the lessons of Silicon Valley’s success can be applied to problems more important than, for example, and these are my words, better algorithmic searches.

Watch this touching video about Terry Winograd and read more about AJWS if any of this piques your interest.

Adam Lashinsky