We recently announced the launch of our fifth annual Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge, with prize money totaling $1 million USD. The Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge is a competition that awards cash prizes to early-stage technology entrepreneurs solving the world’s social and environmental problems. This year, we are also offering an Ethical Artificial Intelligence (AI) Prize.

A $50,000 USD Ethical AI Prize will be awarded to a startup designing artificial intelligence (AI) in an inherently ethical manner, so that the solution addresses social, environmental, or technological challenges. This award is being offered by Cisco’s Emerging Technologies and Incubation (ET&I) Group in the spirit of our new purpose to Power an Inclusive Future for All. The ET&I Group’s vision is to advance the next bold bets and moonshots for Cisco by sourcing, generating, partnering, and incubating new ventures, which can fuel Cisco’s growth for many years to come.

The partnership between the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge and ET&I is symbolic of our commitment to and investment in the artificial intelligence and corporate social responsibility spaces.

The winner of the Ethical AI Prize will also be offered the chance to present their solution and receive feedback from the Emerging Technologies and Incubation team. This exclusive opportunity will include up to five hours of technical mentorship in an area of the winner’s choice, plus a session with our engineering team or an engineering luminary at Cisco to help expand the solution’s technical scope.

What is Ethical AI and why is it an important issue?

Ethical AI will be at the forefront of technology issues because AI, in many ways, is inherently biased. We’re at the stage with AI where people are training machines, and people have implicit, subconscious biases. It is not a question. It is a statement, because it is inherent in human nature. This is why we want to get to the root of the problem by addressing the needs of ethical AI.

When humans pass their biases on to AI, we may be further marginalizing an individual or group through the use of technology. For example, some technologies have shown bias with regard to certain accents in voice recognition or facial features in facial recognition technologies. There are racial and gender biases that lead to issues with surveillance and security monitoring technology. Ethical AI is important to Cisco because we have a special responsibility to power an inclusive future for all. Inclusivity means equal representation. Considering that the ET&I Group is at the forefront of innovation, we want to address those inequalities head on.

We are not at a stage yet where machines can self-correct biases because we are still learning just as much as the machines are learning. AI needs to be taught to teach us, so it’s much like an ongoing, cyclical learning scenario.

The Inspiration Behind the Prize

As an organization, we’re interested in both the ethical mission of AI as well as its technology capability. AI is almost synonymous with an industry buzzword at this point. It is a focus area in which every technology company wants to make its mark and capture market share. With that being said, we must approach AI with intent, precaution, and foresight into both the societal benefits and consequences. Companies including Cisco must think about the ethical implications of their actions. There is a line from Jurassic Park: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” That is something we must contemplate with AI and other 4th industrial revolution technologies.

We ask ourselves: “Who is this going to be impacting?” “Is it going to be impacting them equally?” “Is it going to take into account social biases?” Our research and academic partners are conducting research around these core tenets as well. For example, one of our university research partners is creating an artificial intelligence platform that works with virtual meetings to track your terminology. They make sure that gender biases are taken into consideration. So, instead of an email saying, “Hey, guys” it may say “Hey, everyone.” There are many instances in which people don’t realize they are displaying implicit biases through vernacular. It can be helpful to receive suggested changes to everyday language.

Technical Mentorship Opportunity

Within Cisco’s Emerging Technologies and Incubation Group, we have distinguished engineers and brilliant individuals at the top of their fields. The winner of the Ethical AI Prize will outline what they want to learn along with where they would like to grow. Whether it is team development, skill set development, or something specific to the solution, we can help refine it or give advice on how to scale it or point them in the right direction. Lastly, if the ET&I Group decides to offer an incubation opportunity, there may be an opportunity to become an Entrepreneur in Residence, which has the potential to commercialize the idea.

The Emerging Technologies and Incubation Group can also advise from an engineering or technical perspective or a business and strategy perspective. We have a lot of experience in scaling across industries and scaling across public and private sectors.

Finally, when it comes to this prize, we think it is essential to fall in love with the problem that you are solving, not the solution that you’re building. Be open for refinement, iteration, and strategic pivots.

Interested? Apply to win!

If you have an innovative solution that you think could win the Cisco Global Problem Solver 2021 Ethical AI Prize, please visit our website to register and learn more about the application process. The application deadline is January 29, 2021, at 5 p.m. PT.



Sanjeev Mervana

Vice President of Product Management

Emerging Technologies & Incubation