Facial recognition technology. Algorithms that decide who is a good candidate for a loan or medical procedure. Interactive robots in workplaces and seniors’ homes.
These are just a few examples of the many new and emerging technologies that promise to reshape society in profound and, perhaps, unexpected ways — often raising thorny ethical questions in the process.
As the inaugural director of the University of Toronto’s new Schwartz Reisman Institute for Technology and Society and the inaugural Schwartz Reisman Chair in Technology and Society, Gillian Hadfield will draw on her varied background — in economics and law, humanities, business and high tech — to help ensure technological innovation is implemented fairly and equitably in societies around the world.
“Technologies are a means to an end,” says Hadfield, who is a U of T professor in the Faculty of Law and the Rotman School of Management.
“And the end must be a world that is better, safer, kinder, fairer for us all.”
The Schwartz Reisman Institute for Technology and Society draws on U of T’s across-the-board strengths in sciences, social sciences and humanities to help foster cross-disciplinary solutions to the profound challenges spawned by rapid technological shifts. The institute was established thanks to a landmark $100-million donation — the largest in U of T’s history — by business leaders and philanthropists Gerald Schwartz and Heather Reisman. The gift will also be used to help break ground on the Schwartz Reisman Innovation Centre at the northeast corner of College Street and University Avenue, a new space for students and faculty innovators working in business, computer science and biotechnology, among other fields.
“U of T researchers are leaders in fields as diverse as machine learning, regenerative medicine, philosophy, and culture and communications,” says U of T President Meric Gertler.
“The Schwartz Reisman Institute for Technology and Society will leverage these strengths to help us understand the impact of technology on society — and, indeed, on humanity itself. The work of the institute will also explore the ways in which public policy, politics, and culture can shape the development and application of technology to serve societal ends.
“It is an ambitious and important mandate, and we are thrilled to welcome Professor Hadfield to her new role as the institute’s inaugural director and chair.”
Hadfield re-joined U of T’s Faculty of Law last year after teaching for 17 years at the University of Southern California. She was originally on faculty at U of T between 1995 and 2001.
The native of Oakville, Ont. has a bachelor’s degree in economics from Queen’s University and a law degree and a PhD in economics from Stanford University. She clerked for Chief Judge Patricia Wald on the U.S. Court of Appeals, D.C. Circuit, and has held visiting professorships or fellowships at Harvard, Columbia, NYU, Chicago, and Stanford.
Hadfield was a fellow at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, an experience she says has influenced her vision for U of T’s new institute. As an example of the serendipity that can happen when scholars of a wide variety of fields come together, she recalls hearing a talk by an art historian on the complex geometry of Gothic architecture during her fellowship that meshed with her own ideas on economies and how they pass down knowledge. The lecture focused on how much of the know-how needed to reproduce intricate Gothic buildings was bound up in practice rather than in plans and sketches.
“The complexity was rooted in simplicity and it was knowing what steps to take — rather than the math of the whole — that generated the result,” she says. “When masters stopped building the buildings, the knowledge was lost. I remember this point converging with my own thinking about how economies find and transmit knowledge, and how that can also be rooted in practices and not just theory.”
She hopes researchers at the Schwartz Reisman Institute will similarly find inspiration and points of connection in each other’s work, sparking new ideas and maybe even whole new branches of knowledge.
U of T is a particularly suitable home for such collaboration because it boasts world-leading scholars in a wide spectrum of disciplines, she adds.
“The University of Toronto is a top-flight research university in so many different fields,” she says. “Our ambition for the institute is to knit together research across the sciences, social sciences, the humanities and other fields to find new, concrete solutions to make sure our emerging and powerful technologies go in the direction we want them to go.”
Vivek Goel, vice-president, research and innovation, and strategic initiatives, points out that U of T is one of the few universities in the world that ranks among the top schools in a wide range of subjects.
“U of T’s broad strength across disciplines makes it the ideal place to encourage a cross-pollination of ideas,” says Goel.
“It’s our job to find innovative ways to break down silos between disciplines so these different ideas and perspectives have the opportunity to collide and, hopefully, yield new avenues for research and scholarship, including for graduate students.”
The Schwartz Reisman Institute for Technology and Society is just one example of how U of T is seeking to encourage interdisciplinary approaches, having recently created a new senior administrative position tasked with seeding and scaling such initiatives.
Hadfield’s research spans different disciplines and addresses questions ranging from the philosophical to the mathematical. She has called for reforms to the legal system to reduce fees and other barriers faced by the roughly 80 per cent of people who go to court without a lawyer. She expanded on those ideas and the twin challenges of globalization and digitization in her 2017 book, Rules for a Flat World: Why Humans Invented Law and How to Reinvent it for a Complex Global Economy (a reference to Thomas Friedman’s bestseller The World Is Flat.) She has taught a course based on her book at U of T and co-led the Legal Design Lab (with her husband Dan Ryan, a professor at U of T’s Faculty of Information), an incubator-workshop bringing together students in law, engineering, business, design and information studies to come up with innovative solutions to problems involving access to justice. At Rotman, she teaches about AI and how to ensure its responsible development with the Creative Destruction Lab and the new Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence-affiliated Master in Management Analytics.
In addition to research and teaching, Hadfield brings experience as a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Agile Governance, which focuses on “adaptive, human-centred, inclusive and sustainable” policy-making in the face of technological advancement. She is also deeply engaged in questions about rules and governance surrounding artificial intelligence as a policy adviser for Open AI in San Francisco, an adviser to courts and tech companies, and as a faculty affiliate at the Vector Institute.
One of her early goals as director of the Schwartz Reisman Institute for Technology and Society and Schwartz Reisman Chair in Technology and Society will be to build a “truly integrated, team-based approach to problem solving” by connecting researchers in different disciplines.
“One of the first things we will be doing is looking for people who are really interested in engaging with, and respectful of, approaches in other disciplines,” she says. “The first thing we can do is find those people and start to build that community of collaboration. That’s something that takes thoughtfulness and care.”
In the future, she wants the institute to be known around the world as the go-to place to learn about the technological challenges facing society and to convene to work on their possible solutions.
“I think it’s a great ambition that in 10 years, we’ll have generated new fields of research,” Hadfield says. “I’ll be asking, ‘Have we really created something where we have broken down the silos between disciplines and created truly cross-disciplinary approaches?’
“I’d like to see us being part of inventing a new way to do intellectual work. And with that, to have invented new ways to make sure that our powerful technologies develop in ways that serve humanity well.”