IBM’s Ginni Rometty on Responsibility and Technology

December 16, 2019  • Sophia Rivera-Silverstein

The Aspen Institute recently hosted its 36th Annual Awards Dinner at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. One of the honors presented was the Henry Crown Leadership award, which recognizes an outstanding leader whose achievements reflect the high standards of honor, integrity, industry, and philanthropy that characterized the life and career of Henry Crown. This year, the award was presented to Ginni Rometty, chairman, president, and CEO of IBM.

Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson introduced Rometty, IBM’s first female CEO, and praised her for “courageously and gracefully transform[ing] a 108 year old company…in an age in which the volume of digital data that humanity is generating is altering our world completely, an age in which we require new ways to turn data into information, in order to uplift — and even save — human lives”.

New technologies must not worsen existing inequalities.

For Rometty, part of this transformation came in the form of turning IBM into a vocal and active champion of the equitable implementation of emerging technologies in society. Some of these technologies, such as artificial intelligence and facial recognition software, are the subject of fear and criticism relative to their impact on our privacy, our security, and in the case of AI, our jobs. “I’ve said that artificial intelligence will transform every single job here. Not replace, but transform,” noted Rometty.

In order to prepare society to adapt seamlessly to these new technologies, Rometty stated she believes that IBM (and other corporations) should do more than just build the technology in question— they need to help implement it “safely and with responsibility.” At IBM, this means both adhering to a strict code of conduct internally, to hold themselves accountable to society, and helping to implement policies made realistically and responsibly, to help ease the transition into a future society that’s even more intertwined with technology than the present.

Rometty went on to explain that responsible stewardship of technology means working to ensure that the introduction of new technologies does not worsen the inequality that already exists in today’s world. “I believe in this digital era, we could have a world of haves and haves-… where the benefits [of technology] go to the few, and they don’t go to the many, and I worry about a digital divide that should be healed before it becomes too divisive.” Already, there is a skill gap relative to fluency in working with technology and it needs to be closed as soon as possible. Rometty and IBM are working hard to do their part to help more people become tech-literate, “so everybody can feel they have a great future in front of them, not just the few. And time won’t wait for everyone to get a university degree [related to technology].”

That sense of urgency was the motivator for Pathways in Technology Early College High Schools, or P-Tech, IBM’s groundbreaking initiative to create a technologically fluent generation of students so that even if they choose not to go on to pursue a bachelor degree, they’re prepared for what Rometty calls “new collar” tech jobs. P-Tech students graduate with a high school diploma and a free associate’s degree in applied science, engineering, computer science, or other STEM disciplines. As of November 2019, P-Tech has partnered with over 600 companies to introduce curriculum to 220 high schools in 24 countries, and is approaching having graduated nearly 200,000 students.

IBM also works to create 21st century apprenticeship programs, opportunities for veterans, and return-to-work programs for women who have taken time off to care for their families. These are efforts, said Rometty, to “bring everyone into this digital economy.” These initiatives are part of the work that the Aspen Institute sought to recognize by presenting Rometty with the Henry Crown award. The IBM CEO closed her remarks sharing a principle that she felt Henry Crown understood: “when business does well, business does good.”

Watch Rometty’s full remarks below.