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Martine Rothblatt, CEO of United Therapies and former CEO of SiriusXM, is the highest paid CEO in the country. (photo by Andre Chung courtesy of Martine Rothblatt)

Next-century solutions

“I’m a STEMinist”: 3 futurists imagine how technology can solve global problems

April 9, 2016

The United Nations estimates that the global population will be close to 10 billion by 2050. To support the increasing number of humans on earth, food production will have to increase by 70 percent, despite the ongoing destruction of viable land and freshwater sources. Climate change continues to shape the planet’s future, while unpredictable factors such as disease may spring up without warning, challenging ecosystems and human life. According to leaders in the technology industry assembled on stage on Friday at the Women in the World New York Summit, improvements in technology can ameliorate or prevent all of these perils.

Dr. Martine Rothblatt knows firsthand the power of technology in medicine. With savings from her career as a founder of SiriusXM, she founded the United Therapeutics Corporation after her daughter Jenesis was diagnosed at age seven with pulmonary arterial hypertension, an incurable lung disease for which there was no FDA-approved medicine for treatment at the time. “I didn’t have any biology courses, but schools did a good job of teaching me how to learn,” Rothblatt, who transitioned from male to female in 1994, told the crowd. “I pored through hundreds and hundreds of journal articles to try and find one molecule that might stop the disease.”

Her efforts were successful: at least 30,000 women are alive and living today with pulmonary arterial hypertension, including Jenesis, who works for United Therapeutics and recently developed a digital information system to help streamline the global company’s communication. “I said, ‘You go, girl!’” Rothblatt laughed.

In an industry notorious for price hikes on lifesaving drugs, being a responsible proprietor of pharmaceuticals is important to Rothblatt, who in recent years was named the highest-paid female CEO in the United States. “I don’t want to say our company is better than other companies or something like that. [But] if there’s not an economic reason to increase the price of the drug, then we won’t increase it,” she said to applause.

Yoky Matsuoka in her University of Washington laboratory holds a robotic hand she worked on. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)
Yoky Matsuoka in her University of Washington laboratory holds a robotic hand she worked on. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)

MacArthur Genius Award winner Yoky Matsuoka, who first served as Google’s head of innovation before becoming vice president of technology at Nest, was set to become vice president of technology and analytics at Twitter before passing on the job in May of last year after being misdiagnosed with a life-threatening illness. A true polymath, she has studied computer science, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, neuroscience, and robotics, and she believes the “reactive” nature of healthcare in the United States is misguided. “It just seems wrong,” she said. “We’re carrying basically a computer and doing amazing things in our pocket [with smartphones], but medicine is still making money off of you being sick.”

In the future, she argues, technology may be able to prevent people from getting sick, with personalized care taking healthcare to the next level. “What if the technology can learn the special needs [of people]?” Matsuoka asked. She cautioned that issues of privacy arise as smart products evolve: “We have to integrate [technology] in a way that humans are okay with.”

Martine Rothblatt, Yoky Matsuoka, Caroline Dowling, and Bianna Golodryga. (Marc Bryan-Brown/Women in the World)
Martine Rothblatt, Yoky Matsuoka, Caroline Dowling, and Bianna Golodryga. (Marc Bryan-Brown/Women in the World)

Caroline Dowling agreed that when it comes to technology, responsibility is key. As the president of communications infrastructure and enterprise computing at Flex, a $26 billion sketch-to-scale solutions company with operations in 30 countries, Dowling has helped pioneer wearable computing devices around the world. After significant flooding affected her employees in India, video conferences became essential not only for work, but also in helping the sick receive diagnosis. “Those new technologies…will bring healthcare to everybody. It will allow you to access doctors quickly and efficiently [by video conference],” she said. She believes artificial intelligence will also play a key role in reshaping health care, helping doctors to analyze data and make diagnoses with greater accuracy. The future of how food is grown will also change with technology’s advances, Dowling added: from drones that monitor crops to self-driving tractors, farmers around the world already benefit from technologies that help create food.

As the creator of the humanoid robot Bina48, who Women in the World interviewed last year, Rothblatt also has a great interest in artificial intelligence. Bina48 was modeled and shaped with the memories, beliefs and values of Rothblatt’s wife, the real-life Bina. In the future, more humans could leave behind a robotic form of themselves.

“When we look at mass media—Terminators and this kind of thing—all the robots were male,” she explained. She sought female role models , to inspire a new generation of girls to become active in robotics. “I’m a STEMinist!” Rothblatt says proudly.

Follow Alli Maloney on Twitter. Additional reporting contributed by Gina Kim.