The “Technologists” and Society

Another round of technology leaders testifying in Congress last week brought about another round of complaints about the excessive power that “technologists” wield over today’s society. Are Computer Scientists following Economists in losing public support? Are we turning from heroes to villains in the public eye? Hopefully not, but it is becoming clear that the prosperity of Computer Science depends (at least in part) on Computer Scientists rising to meet the challenge in addressing the societal impact of computations.

While all too common, the term “technologists” in this context is unfortunate. Who are those mysterious “technologists?” Are they software engineers? Are they computer scientists? (and which sub area: Machine Learning? Theory? Others?) Or perhaps CEOs of technology companies? Or perhaps this refers to the investment firms and Wall Street, who seem to have such a huge sway over technology companies? Perhaps users of technology are to blame? Each of those is a completely different group of individuals with completely different sets of constraints and incentives. Lumping them all together is close to meaningless.

In a sequence of posts (by me and others and of increasing level of technical details), I hope to discuss the role of Theory of Computing in the study of the particularly important societal issue of Algorithmic Fairness. In this post, I’d like to briefly discuss the role of Academia more generally.

The power and weakness of education

An idea that is getting traction is that ethics and the societal impact of computation should be embedded in essentially all Computer Science courses. I am all for it! (In fact, ethics should be a major part of every curriculum on campus, not just Computer Science). As these days a huge fraction of students take some Computer Science courses, this will improve the awareness of technology consumers to ethics in computation. It will also improve the awareness of software engineers and eventually also the leadership of technology companies and as importantly that of policy makers.

But awareness, in itself, may not have much of an impact. Software engineers often have very little flexibility in shaping the products they develop, even when it comes to topics that more clearly affect the bottom line of their companies (this has to do with the quick pace and incentive structure of companies). Even the most philanthropic CEOs seem to run companies that violate basic ethical considerations. Here too, the incentive structure is much more to blame than lack of awareness. And even consumers that want to punish violators, often do not, as many software companies are to a large extent a monopoly. In other cases, violators operate behind the scenes, hidden from consumers.

Developing the Knowledge and Tools

I would also add that topics like privacy and algorithmic fairness require significant sophistication and much of the required knowledge and tools are yet to be developed. This means that academia (and funding agencies) should perform and support much more research. But (big) companies (that make their living exploiting sensitive data) should also hire many more researchers (of various disciplines) to develop the tools they need.

The great breakthroughs in Machine Learning within industry did not occur because the employees of those companies increased their awareness to the importance of data analysis. It happened because those companies employed talented and knowledgeable individuals and poured a lot of money into machine learning. Unless companies invest much more resources in their ethics, we are going to see the same recurring failures in protecting their users.

Regulations

As we already mentioned that users are very limited in punishing big companies, it is unlikely that we will see the needed investment across the board (some companies are much better in this regard, but those companies are the exception rather than the rule). In addition to education, we need to enforce good behavior through legislation and regulation. Unfortunately, the direction of the current administration is to remove protections for consumers. Still, we can hope that Europe (as well as some of the more progressive U.S. states), will come to our rescue once again. As far of the role of scientists, we should work with policy makers to develop and advocate for the “right” regulations.

 

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