Five Questions for Responsible Innovation Leaders: TikTok’s Vaibhav Pahwa

January 18, 2023

Blogs Responsible Innovation


By Sarah Ryan

As part of our series ‘Five Questions for Responsible Innovation Leaders,’ Article One speaks with Vaibhav Pahwa, Responsible Innovation (RI) Product Manager at TikTok. As part of TikTok’s larger global Trust and Safety organization, Vai’s work focuses on driving the RI team’s product work on machine learning (ML) fairness,  product inclusion, and artificial intelligence (AI) ethics. He partners with teams across the company including Product, User Research, Community, Privacy, Legal, to build out TikTok’s approach to RI in the Trust and Safety organization. In this profile, Vai provides insights into how product and engineering professionals can bring their unique technical lens to this work and tips for how to create a respected, effective, and sustainable responsible innovation program.  

1. Welcome to Article One’s Interview Series! You have a background in computer science and product management – what drew you to responsible innovation?  

I’ve been interested in how technology can bridge barriers and be a force for good for a while now. And over time, I’ve learned that while technology has generally been a net positive for society, it hasn’t always been equitable. Over the last few years, I’ve worked at the intersection of product management, machine learning and fairness + inclusion, basically doing the work that a lot of responsible innovation related teams focus on, but without that exact title. With a lot of these technologies advancing rapidly, and stakes getting higher and higher given how powerful these technologies can be, it’s really important to make sure the right safeguards and measures are in place to mitigate harm – and that’s an area that I wanted to focus on, regardless of what kind of role I was in. Having a background in computer science and product management allows me to bring one important lens to this kind of work that complements social science, policy and other important backgrounds. 

2. How can responsible innovation managers best incentivize other teams to work on responsible innovation?  

Firstly, it’s important to identify what Responsible Innovation means to your company, i.e. what is the vision of the team or program, and what is their scope. Once that’s identified and communicated, Responsible Innovation managers can best incentivize other teams to work on these areas by 1) speaking the same language as their stakeholders, i.e. Deeply understanding their counterpart team’s strategy, drivers and metrics, and 2) emphasizing the importance of these areas and how it will help improve teams’ overall success, as well as individual contributor and manager growth. It’s important to help influence the reward/incentive structure for this as well. But if you can show that the work helps the team and company’s overall success, then the reward and incentive structure will follow. Ideally, this also comes from top down and teams are incentivized to ladder into these goals, but if not, then these two ways can help a lot and help priorities come from bottom up. 

3. How can we measure how ethical or responsible a technology can be?  

It’s very difficult to measure ethics or responsibility overall, but I think this fundamentally boils down to a few things. Firstly, you need to identify principles or themes under your responsible innovation umbrella. Then, you can measure each of those areas, e.g. Fairness (which there are many definitions in industry and academia that you can adopt based on your use cases). Next, general user sentiment and trust sentiment can be strong indicators of ethics and responsibility. If your users or customers – and not just the demographic majority, but also the historically marginalized or minority communities – have strong positive sentiment, that can be a strong indicator or measure of ethics and responsibility. 

4. If you were giving advice to someone building a responsible or ethical innovation program today, what are the 2-3 things you would guide them to do first to ensure a successful program?  

A few pieces of advice: firstly, make sure you consult leaders in your organization to get buy-in for the function. Ultimately, those teams will work cross functionally across many areas, so it’s important to make sure that other teams’ leaders are aligned in terms of vision and roles and responsibilities. As a part of that, you need think deeply about reward and incentive structures for other teams and which important processes the team(s) should be embedded into. Next, once the team(s) are in place, it’s important to show value quickly and share that with other teams and leadership as much as possible to raise awareness of the team. It’s important to make sure the ROI (return on investment) and team offerings are articulated clearly in those, not just for the responsible innovation program, but also for other cross functional teams. This way, teams know who to go to in order to address some of these potential risks proactively, along with the processes already in place. 

5. Where do you see the field of responsible innovation five or ten years down the line?  

I think we’ll see a lot of these areas as table stakes for any company, especially with regulations evolving very quickly that touch on important areas such as fairness, user privacy, mental health and wellbeing, transparency, and more. I imagine as we see new breakthroughs in AI and related areas, as well as new mediums to communicate and connect, that there will continue to be teams focused on research, with tighter partnership with academics and regulatory bodies; but a lot of teams will start to take on this work as a part of their day to day without the formal responsible innovation title.