The latest to speak up about the lack of foresight by the tech set is seasoned entrepreneur and investor Max Levchin, who is best known as the cofounder and former chief technology officer of PayPal. Levchin says that in the early days of building the online payments system, which was founded in 1998, founders were mostly thinking of the benefits it would provide.
“I remember building PayPal, we were filled with libertarian ideals. We thought that it would be great to give the world a new currency,” he said during an interview with CNN Business at the Collision tech conference in Toronto this week. “We were not really asking the question, ‘Is it good for humanity?'”
There are also growing concerns about the emergence of new technologies like Amazon’s facial recognition software, Rekognition, which critics worry could have potential civil and human rights repercussions.
Entrepreneurs today should be prepared to have nuanced answers to questions about morality, says Levchin, who is currently CEO of financial services startup Affirm, which he co-founded, as well as chairman and cofounder of period-tracking app Glow. He said entrepreneurs need to have the tough conversations early on, and be prepared to throw their weight behind their moral stances.
“You have to stand for something and deliver on that stance. … Any Silicon Valley company that wants to scale itself to real meaningful size has to take an extremely moral view and speak to and be able to defend its actions and occasionally contend with very challenging, moral questions. The only way that Silicon Valley establishes that trust is by actively talking about those questions and answering with actions.”
He says that when founding Affirm in 2013, morality was a central question. The company wants to offer a credit card alternative by providing loans for purchases, specifically for people who may not normally be approved by traditional banks. The loans come with a simple interest rate and no late fees. It says it does not sell or share user data with third parties.
“We can choose to decline an application for a loan if it is for an item that we don’t support,” Levchin said, adding that debt is “a very weighty, morality-centric issue.” He asks: “Is it good to borrow money? I think it is, if you are investing it in a better version of your future self.”
As questions about the ethics and morals of tech platforms continue to be raised by critics, entrepreneurs may have to be more realistic about the benevolence and malevolence of their services. Meanwhile, some are growing tired of the frequently cited notion that technology is amoral, and that people make it bad or good.
“If we continue to say … ‘we are building devices, they get used for good and they get used for bad. That’s not really our concern.’ I think that’s exactly what brought us to this point,” Levchin added.