Thursday, January 23, 2014

What will we wrought?

When I went to college in the early 80's, students protested against college endowments invested in companies that had business in apartheid South Africa. My mother worked as a statistician for one of those companies. An interesting dilemma, do I support a policy that hurts the company that is indirectly helping to put me through college?

Now my daughter is in college and worrying that the computing revolution will make it hard to find a job once she graduates and making her consider those job prospects in the major she chooses. And what am I? Chair of a computer science department that helps push that revolution forward.

Computing gets quite a bit of blame these days for the widening income gap between the have and the have nots, and jobs taken over by automation, but without causing a corresponding need for other types of jobs, other than those that serve computation itself. Are those fears real? We can't answer that question yet, positively or negatively. Time will tell.

For now, we just need to do our jobs, making computing better but also understanding and mitigating the negative effects of computing. We need to make sure that computing technology becomes a growing sea that raises all boats, and not just making the world better for the technological elite.

While I stand in awe in how computer science has changed the world, I hope we don't ever end up with CS leaders getting together and saying "What have we wrought?"


  1. I share the sentiment, but "wrought" is the simple past tense and past participle of work.

    1. Lance's question stems from Samuel Morse's inaugural telegraph message of 1843: "What hath God wrought?" (Numbers 23:23).

    2. What will we wreak?

  2. See this MIT review article for a more extensive discussion of the issue.

  3. Computational complexity, is by definition, the study of deciding the number of resources computer problems require. Our lower bounds tell people what they can do and what they cannot, especially with few resources. It also enables them to build tools like cryptography and cryptocurrencies that give newfound power to individuals, power only governments could handle in the past. Our upper bounds on the other hand, with the help of the closely related field of Algorithms, also give people the opportunity to perform computations as efficiently as possible, without the need of specialized hardware and supercomputers.

    Given the restrictions we've proven and those we suspect to be true, I believe as a field we have really helped mankind as a whole.

  4. have researched this issue very closely for over a decade and think the answer is much more subtle. what is really at issue it seems is that capitalism is not built to distribute evenly the gains that come from new technologies. they mainly go to the capitalist class, not the labor class. marx had this figured out, and the word "luddite" actually comes from the era of the jacquard loom [an early version of the computer!] when that more automated loom was putting weavers out of business. the luddites were a social group whose livelihood was devastated by the machines. at least the public is slowly, dimly coming to face with this issue after obama has recently been touting it. mostly symbolically/ineffectively, imho.

  5. That's nothing. Artificial intelligence is potentially the end of the human race.

  6. Please allow me to commend to readers of Computational Complexity Bill Moyer's interview with Wendell Berry titled "Hopes for Humanity."

    For Berry, hope is not a plan or an intent (indeed for Berry the future is not even real); rather hope is a lived, shared, sustained reality of individuals and communities. My wife Connie Sidles' next book Fill of Hope concerns itself with the intricacies of this sustainment, and so she and I both take a great interest in it.

    What roles does complexity theory in general play, and quantum complexity theory in particular play, in the sustainment of hope in the 21st century? Are these roles broad versus narrow? Deep versus shallow? Contextual versus a priori? Gil Kalai and Scott Aaronson and I (and many others) have been enjoying a lively discussion of these tough issues on Shtetl Optimized.

    My own views (and Connie's) incline toward Berry's, and yet we appreciate that (obviously) it is neither necessary, nor feasible, nor desirable that everyone share these views. But it *is* desirable, and feasible, and even a practical necessity, that young researchers (particularly) familiarize themselves with the formidable 21st century literature that grapples with these issues.

    Thank you Lance, for helping to provide these resources and this encouragement.

  7. The lack of comment upon the tough questions of Lance's daughter is surprising.

    Wendell Berry's closing comments in the interview "Hopes for Humanity" are from his:

    Poem On Hope
    It is hard to have hope.
    It is harder as you grow old …
    But stop dithering.
    The young ask the old to hope.
    What will you tell them?
    Tell them at least what you say to yourself.

    Berry's modern-day injunction that we "tell our children what we say to ourselves" nicely complements an ancient injunction of the sage Elazar ben Azaryah (1st-century CE):

    He [Elazar ben Azaryah] used to say: Anyone whose wisdom exceeds his good deeds, to what can he be compared? To a tree whose branches are numerous but whose roots are few, and the wind comes and uproots it and turns it upside down; as it is stated: And he shall be like a lonely tree in arid land and shall not see when good comes; he shall dwell on parched soil in the wilderness, on salt-land, not inhabitable.'

    But anyone whose [good] deeds exceed his wisdom, to what can he be compared? To a tree whose branches are few but whose roots are numerous, so that even if all the winds in the world were to come and blow against it, they could not move it from its place; as it is stated: And he shall be like a tree planted by waters, toward the stream spreading its roots, and it shall not feel when the heat comes, and its foliage shall be verdant; in the year of drought it shall not worry, nor shall it cease from yielding fruit.

    Conclusion  The poets and sages teach that the sustainment of hope and prosperity for our children's generation requires that "our good deeds exceed our wisdom." Obviously this sustainment is easier for those of us who are not notably wise!

  8. Are you seriously comparing working in a technology field to supporting apartheid in South Africa?!

  9. :/ @John, I'm afraid, little has been learnt from.Please, try to keep points brief. Unless, u'd like to write guest posts on Lance's blog.

    1. Anonymous, you might want to reflect upon the following answers to the 2013 Edge question "What scientific idea is ready for retirement?"

      • Kathryn Clancy: retires "science should be privileged over scientists",
      • Eldar Shafir: retires "opposites can’t both be right",
      • A. C. Grayling: retires "simplicity", and
      • Gavin Schmidt: retires "simple answers"

      An in-depth meditation upon these topics is historian Stephen Johnson's unassumingly titled (and to my mind, under-appreciated) The Secret of Apollo: Systems Management in American and European Space Programs (2002).

      A considerable virtue of Johnson's book (as it seems to me) is that it illuminates the Apollo Program as an enterprise that already has field-tested — with outstandingly successful results — the paradigm-shifts advocated by Clancy, Shafir, Grayling, and Schmidt.

      The relevance to Lance Fortnow's essay emerges as follows. Lance's daughter belongs to a cohort of two billion young people who are seeking dignified, secure, family-supporting jobs. Old STEM paradigms are proving inadequate to this challenge, and so perhaps the STEM paradigm-changes advocated by Clancy, Shafir, Grayling, and Schmidt deserve our consideration.

      Are larger-than-Apollo projects in store for humanity in the 21st century? We can be entirely confident of this (as it seems to me) … fortunately for Lance's daughter!

      But perhaps we can't reasonably expect the resulting world to be simple.