The future of technology

Teach-in.Future of tech
Moderator Susan Davidson and panelists Rakesh Vohra, Aaron Roth, and Michael Kearns (left to right) discussed algorithmic decision making, which now contributes to the prices of goods and services we purchase, the media we consume, and whether we are approved for a loan or interviewed for a job.

As new technologies emerge, whether related to health care, artificial intelligence, or other aspects of society, they bring with them new ethical challenges. 

The topic of the future of technology was front and center on day three of the Penn Teach-in March 18-22. The series of free public events convened by the faculty senate aims to bring the academic community together with the broader community to engage in wide-ranging discussions on topics of social importance. 

Among the offerings on Tuesday were two panels featuring faculty from the School of Engineering and Applied Science. The first, “The Future of Technology: Engineering Human Health,” was moderated by Kathleen Stebe and included Jennifer Phillips-Cremins, David Issadore, and David Meaney

The researchers, who all use concepts of bioengineering to study various aspects of how the brain functions, brain trauma, or how to improve access to medical diagnostics, discussed their hopes for how their work could advance technology and health care over the coming decades as well as what sorts of challenges and ethical questions may need to be addressed as this happens. 

“We can now do things that we never dreamed of,” said Phillips-Cremins, “but right away there needs to be a discussion at the highest levels because the science is moving too fast for the legislating bodies to keep up. With new technology comes all sorts of tremendous responsibility to start thinking about how these issues could affect society.”

“We want to know why circuits in the brain change in the way that they do following a concussion and how does the brain rewire itself,” said Meaney. “One of our goals is to see if there’s something we can learn about the principles of that rewiring process that we could potentially accelerate it in the future.”

The second panel, “The Future of Technology: Artificial Intelligence and Society,” was moderated by Susan Davidson and included Michael Kearns, Rakesh Vohra and Aaron Roth.

Kearns research interests include topics in machine learning, algorithmic game theory, computational social science and algorithmic trading. Vohra is a leading expert in mechanism design, an area of game theory that brings together economics, engineering, and computer science. Roth’s research focuses on the algorithmic foundations of data privacy, algorithmic fairness, game theory and mechanism design, learning theory, and the intersections of these topics. 

The panelists tackled the topic of algorithmic decision making, which now contributes to the prices of goods and services we purchase, the media we consume, the advertisements we see, whether we are approved for a loan or interviewed for a job, and whether we are released on parole or on bail. They posed questions about the issues of fairness and the privacy of individuals in the context of algorithms and offered ideas on how to make artificial intelligence better behaved with respect to social norms.

“Before we get to the place where we can call out examples of discriminatory algorithms,” said Roth, “and ask for them to be fixed, we need to understand how to fix them and we also need to better understand what we want. What does it mean for an algorithm to be fair and how can we arrange for that to be the case?”

Penn’s Teach-in continues with a full roster of events through Thursday. Please check the website for updates about cancellations of any events due to weather.


Kathleen Stebe is the Deputy Dean for Research and Innovation and the Goodwin Professor in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. 

Jennifer Phillips-Cremins is an assistant professor of bioengineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science and a core member of the Epigenetics Program in the Perelman School.

David Issadore is an assistant professor in the departments of Bioengineering, Electrical and Systems Engineering, and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

David Meaney is the S.R. Pollack Professor and Chair of Bioengineering.

Susan Davidson is the Weiss Professor of Computer and Information Science in Engineering.

Michael Kearns is a professor in the Computer and Information Science Department in Engineering and the founding director of the Warren Center for Network and Data Sciences.

PIK professor Rakesh Vohra is the George A. Weiss and Lydia Bravo Weiss University Professor with appointments in Engineering and the School of Arts and Sciences. He is also the co-director of the Warren Center for Network & Data Sciences.

Aaron Roth is the class of 1940 Bicentennial Term associate professor of Computer and Information Sciences.