Smack dab in the middle of presidential election debate season, coworking community 1776 hosted a back-and-forth event of its own — although political partisanship was left at the virtual door to instead discuss current topics in the tech community.
Ten women in the tech world came together last week for a debate series hosted by 1776 and CVS to battle it out on topics like AI, biases, innovation and data sharing. The debaters were paired with topics that fit their expertise, but were randomly assigned to a view point and asked to defend the extreme side of that argument.
“In the real world, it’s not black and white — it’s very, very gray,” moderator Vanessa Chan told attendees, “especially with a lot of the controversial topics we’re discussing here today. But it gives us all the opportunity to take a fresh look at these topics.”
Attendees were encouraged to vote before each debate on where they currently stand on a topic, like innovation. At the end of the 10-minute debate, they were asked where they then stood.
“Do corporations or startups approach innovation better?” attendees were asked before Aramark Director of Innovation and Strategic Initiatives Diane Mussio and Engage Mentoring Founder Alison Martin each presented their side.
Mussio argued that corporations’ resources and ability to invest in new ideas meant they lead the pack on innovation. They can harness consumer insights, work quickly and they have the funds to make it happen, she said.
“About 90% of startups can’t sustain between one to two years, and they can’t get past their initial failure,” Mussio said.
And yet, startups are better at innovation because of their speed and empathy, Martin argued. They can cut through red tape and move at a pace that corporations can’t while figuring out their trial and error more quickly.
“Often when decisions are made from the top, they’re people who are removed from people doing the actual work,” she said. “In a startup, the leaders are connected, in most cases they’re working with people on the outcome and the people who will be the end users.”
Before the debate, 17% of attendees had voted that they believed corporations handle innovation better, while 76% voted startups, with 17% undecided. After Mussio’s and Martin’s discussion, more had swayed toward corporations, with 22% of voters saying corporations and 71% saying startups. Only 7% of voters remained undecided. Mussio was named the winner for swaying more people toward her view.
(Check out a similar conversation Technical.ly led last month on growing innovation in non-tech environments.)
Another close and relevant debate happened between Rachna Chadha, an architect advisor at CVS who is based in Harleysville, and Katherine Yacko, a Glenside-based senior director of tech innovation at CVS, on the question, “Is AI a blessing or a curse?”
Before the debate, a whopping 45% of attendees (this reporter included) were undecided on where they stood, while 38% said they felt AI was a blessing, and 17% called it a curse.
Chadha began her argument with a very real example: “If you’re using face recognition on your smartphones or Alexa in your daily lives, I’m sure you’re already convinced AI has added convenience to your life.”
It’s also been integrated into nearly every industry, she added, from farming to healthcare, and it’s currently being used to diagnose and treat diseases like cancer and predict the spread of COVID-19.
“All that to say, I think AI has added to the quality and humanity of our life,” the architect advisor finished.
AI comes with great responsibility, though, Yacko argued. It’s helped decide things like a job opportunity, a kidney transplant, a judicial sentence or a mortgage approval, and it’s wide open for biases to creep in.
“We humans are the ones that create AI,” Yacko argued. “And unfortunately we humans are flawed. To date we been not able to identify and manage our own prejudice and shortcomings, and until we can do that we really need to have preventative measures to balance those shortcomings.”
After their debate and rebuttals, fewer people (21%) reported that they were undecided, but the votes were close. Now, 38% of people voted they believed AI was a curse, while 41% said it was a blessing. Yacko took the win for convincing more people to join her side.
For the rest of the hour, Pamela Raitt and Aurora Archer of the Bellatrix Group debated how to navigate implicit biases in healthcare and tech; Farzaneh Poorjabar of Aetna and Julia Anthony of of SOLUtion Medical debated healthcare tech ethics; and Nivedita Nelaturi of CVS and Misu Tasnim of U.S. Digital Service debated using emotion versus facts in a pitch.
To watch the full debates, check out the recording of the event here: