COVID-19 Has Laid Bare The Digital Divide—Meet The Technologist, And First Female Recipient Of The Marconi Prize, Intent On Solving It

Andrea J. Goldsmith, Marconi Prize Winner 2020

Originally printed in Forbes

From the library of her Menlo Park, California, home, Dr. Andrea Goldsmith, 55, holds up a brick of a mobile phone next to her later model iPhone to demonstrate the evolution from 1G technology. On Thursday, Goldsmith became the first woman in the Marconi Society’s 45-year history to be awarded the Marconi Prize. The distinction is granted to individuals whose exceptional contributions to communications technology have benefited society.

“It’s an honor to be recognized in the pantheon of people who impacted the world for the better through developing information communication technology,” Goldsmith said. “Winning this award is a combination of validation that the work that I’ve done has had a big impact, but more special than that is becoming apart of this group of innovators and technologists who are my professional heroes.”

Goldsmith is also the first woman to be president of the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Information Theory Society, to win the IEEE Eric E. Sumner Award for outstanding contributions to communications technology and the IEEE Communications Society Armstrong Technical Achievement Award.

 To ensure outcomes that more closely align with the technology nonprofit’s mission to increase digital inclusion, the advisory committee that helps decide winners has been made more diverse. Beyond recognition, the prize comes with a $100,000 reward, which Goldsmith will donate back to the Marconi Society to fund a program for diversity and inclusion.“It’s an organization that’s small enough that the money can have a big impact on two areas I’m interested in investing in within the Marconi Society, which are technology around digital inclusion and advancing wireless technology. That’s not a lot of money for research and development, but I think there can be targeted opportunities to invest that money,” Goldsmith said.

This philanthropic tendency is in part what won Goldsmith the prize.

“We’re delighted to have someone who so well fills all of the desirable properties of a Marconi Fellow including the technical contributions, entrepreneurial capacity and philanthropic interests,” Cerf told Forbes. Cerf, whose life’s work has been the internet, spoke of the technology he helped create being able to bridge gaps of inclusion that have been laid bare by the global coronavirus pandemic.

“There are lessons to be learned from the pandemic, we must recognize the economic impact of social distancing, which is a vital response to COVID-19, but at the same time understand the enormous price being paid in an unequal way. The problem is balancing economic interests and safety.”

He notes those at the lower economic rung, whose jobs involve face-to-face interactions compared to those who can work in an online environment, may support arguments for universal basic income and other social safety nets.

Both Goldsmith and Cerf are proud of their work to bolster digital networks and communications has been an integral tool in the fight against COVID-19. But they note that there is more work to be done.

“I always view technology as a double-edged sword,” Goldsmith said. “The positive side of our information communication platforms is that they allowed us to go suddenly to an all-online world, from education to business and socializing, which is imperfect in each of these dimensions. If anything, this unplanned massive experiment has demonstrated the value of in-person interactions. This has also magnified the digital divide.”

Goldsmith will be starting a new venture in September as the dean of engineering at Princeton. She’s excited to continue her research into the Internet of Things applications for safety, emergency response, the energy sector and healthcare like body sensors that are compatible with cloud technology and can convey data back to patients’ doctors.

“What I like about this next wave of telecommunications is that there’s such a diverse range of devices and applications that we want to support with it, and that requires a much more flexible and innovative network design than what we have today.”