Students, experts talk using tech ‘4’ good

A guy standing holding a microphone on a stage. It says SHIFT SC on a banner behind him.
Carson Mogush is a tech lead for USC’s Code the Change, an organization that develops technology for nonprofit organizations pro-bono. (Simon Park | Daily Trojan)

Students, alongside tech industry professionals, spoke at the first-ever Tech4Good Student Symposium Tuesday night at Bovard Auditorium. Startup founders, ethical technology advocates and programmers included in the lineup spoke about the potential dangers of technological advancement and how they’ve found ways to use technology for social good. 

Coordinated by Shift SC, a student organization focused on “human-centered and socially responsible technology,” the event had more than 30 students and USC community members in attendance.

Adam Novak, a junior majoring in computer science and East Asian languages and cultures, founded Shift SC last year to spark a conversation about the ethical problems and potential consequences posed by technology, despite its benefits. 

“We’re basically looking at the ways technology creates unintended consequences in society and how we can shift technology as a whole towards the better,” Novak said. 

Shift SC Symposium initiative lead Caroline Kenney opened the event with a talk about why she joined the organization and planned the event. She drew inspiration from her father, who lost his hearing entirely as a child. When he had his daughter, he decided to get a cochlear implant to be able to hear her voice. Kenney said she saw firsthand how technology could be used to improve, or even transform, people’s lives. 

“I envisioned the Tech4Good Student Symposium as an opportunity for USC students to share how they have used technology to improve human lives,” said Kenney, a freshman majoring in mechanical engineering. “Part of what makes the USC community so special is that our students want to change the world. This event highlights students who are changing the world through technology.”

Following Kenney’s opening address, Novak spoke to the audience about his journey from a USC freshman enamored by technology and programming — yet, somewhat disillusioned by the lack of discussions about ethics and social responsibility in his computer science classes — to his summer-long experience in a Buddhist monastery living as a monk and back to USC with a newfound drive to harness technology’s capacity for social good. 

“I wanted to cure this disorientation and this loneliness I felt as a freshman by finding others who similarly care about how technology affects our society,” Novak said. “Each of us had come to the same conclusion: we need a shift in tech.”

David Jay, chief mobilization officer at the Center for Humane Technology, delivered the symposium’s keynote address. The Center, which was involved in the production of the 2020 Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma,” shares a similar mission to Shift SC, centered on “humane technology that supports our well-being, democracy, and shared information environment.” Jay classified the dilemma of technology’s societal impact as a crisis, similar to that of climate change. 

“In the same way that it’s incredibly profitable to take carbon out of the ground and put it in the air, it’s incredibly profitable to extract your attention and develop technology that tries to manipulate your behavior,” Jay said. “Even though it’s incredibly profitable, it’s also incredibly harmful.”

Some of Jay’s speech struck an optimistic tone, comparing the current ethical technology movement to the budding environmental sustainability movement of the 1990s. He also informed the audience of two bills making their way through the California legislature which would regulate how companies develop technology for children.

After Jay’s keynote address, USC alumni Brian Femminella and Travis Chen spoke to the audience about SoundMind, a music and visual therapy application they developed together. The app is targeted towards people who have anxiety, depression, trauma and other mental health struggles. 

“Technology should not be something that we shy away from,” Chen said. “It’s part of what this world has become and we’ve adapted to, so being able to use technology for positive things and look at it in a way that can help us, help our mental wellbeing and help our mental health — that’s what we want people to take away from [our speech].”

The event’s student speakers included Carson Mogush, a tech lead for USC’s Code the Change; Surya Nehra, a senior who developed a model to forecast diseases in regions with less available data; and Arman Patel, president of Effective Altruism USC. 

The final student speaker of the event was Manushri Desai, a senior majoring in public policy and healthcare studies. Desai also spoke at the United Nations twice, in 2019 and 2020, and gave a TEDxUSC talk in March. Her talk at the symposium centered on her experience in the disability justice movement and technology’s role in it. Desai partnered with Voice of Specially Abled People, an organization dedicated to the advancement of people with disabilities, to develop a mobile application map of physical accessibility in different USC locations.  

“The disability justice movement is so inextricably linked to all of us in a lot of ways that we don’t readily realize,” said Desai in an interview with the Daily Trojan. “Being able to just connect with others one-on-one through the Tech4Good symposium platform really provided me with an opportune space to voice how people could make a difference in this area, and especially with the use of technology.” 

Novak, similar to many of the speakers that he, Kenney and their team brought to the event, spoke optimistically about the future of technology despite its current and potential consequences of which he warned.

“I’ve spoken with similar student orgs’ leaders around the country,” Novak said in his remarks. “Whether in [Los Angeles], Palo Alto, Boston, everywhere, students just like us feel the same way. We see problems which tech has created; we see problems which tech can solve and we see that we have the ability and responsibility to do something about them.”