Why We Have To Do Better: The Case for Tech for Good

By Paula Reinman

When you talk with Hao Zou, you’re never sure which country he is in or which problem he is working on. Born in China, educated in California and busily applying mathematics and artificial intelligence (AI) to solve social problems globally, Hao is focused on changing lives for the better.

The 2008 Marconi Society Young Scholar has just been named a 2017 Global Young Leader by the World Economic Forum, representing the Greater China region. According to the World Economic Forum, these young leaders are “innovative, enterprising and socially minded men and women under the age of 40 who are pushing boundaries and re-thinking the world around them.”

For Zou, this award brings together the three most important aspects of his work: his entrepreneurial venture, Abundy, using AI to increase efficiency in financial services and healthcare; his academic work as a Chair Professor at Tsinghua University leveraging computer vision technology to detect curable cancers; and his social impact work in developing countries as a member of the Marconi Society Board supporting STEM students.

“Being chosen as a WEF Global Young Leader connects all of my efforts and gives me an opportunity to build relationships with people working in NGOs, academia and industry to increase social responsibility,” said Zou. “I am very honored to be selected.”

Using Math to Give Back

Emeritus Professor and 2006 Marconi Fellow, John Cioffi, was Zou’s advisor at Stanford, where he was one of the few students ever to have earned an MBA and PhD simultaneously. Cioffi says Zou was “perhaps the most brilliant student I’ve ever had.” Following graduation from Stanford’s Department of Engineering and Graduate School of Business, Zou worked as a portfolio manager for five years in one of the world’s largest investment companies, focusing on quantitative investing and identifying values in securities with mathematical financial models. He considered it a great opportunity to learn the financial industry, and the prevalent inefficiencies within it.

“I feel very privileged to have received the education that I did at Stanford and in the industry, and I am passionate about giving back,” Zou explained.

Zou believes that much of the societal divide in our world is based on inefficiency. Often, problems are more about resource allocation and increasing productivity or reducing factors that impede the economy than they are about pure scarcity. AI can be a powerful tool in equalizing opportunities when it is applied to reducing the costs of serving large or distributed populations.

Here are a couple of examples of Zou’s work in action:

Early identification of curable cancers

Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer to affect women, with about 1.7M new cases diagnosed every year. Early diagnosis is critical to survival. Due to a shortage of experienced pathologists and radiologists, as well as the sheer size of the population in China, curable cancers like breast cancer can easily be missed and have much lower survival rates in China than they do in the US.

5-Year Relative Survival Rate (2005-2009)

Source: Healthline

Zou, as the Director of the Center for Intelligent Medical Imaging and Health at Tsinghua, along with his colleagues, are using computer vision technology to help doctors diagnose breast cancer early. AI can help doctors make faster and more accurate diagnoses for more patients – and save more lives.

Financial Inclusion:

Financial services is another area where greater efficiencies will lead to economic opportunity for diverse populations. In China and other emerging countries, there is no mass-market credit scoring system, as there is in the US and the developed world. This means that fewer than 30% of people have credit scores, which entitle them to lower interest loans. Large banks currently have no incentive to undertake the time consuming and costly work of identifying good loan candidates from the pool of those with no credit scores.

Using analytics and AI, banks can more easily identify potential loan recipients, expand their business and offer opportunities to a far greater number of people than ever before, making financial inclusion a reality.

Zou believes that technology in the hands of a select few will create even more inequality. According to Marconi Society Chairman, Vint Cerf, this is exactly the kind of thinking we need from the next generation of scientists. “Hao is quite phenomenal,” says Cerf. “Technology used to build scale and increase performance in areas like healthcare and financial inclusion can make a difference to people around the world. With champions like Zou, it’s easy to have hope for positive global change.”