Thursday, June 01, 2017

Who Sets Policy?

In April the New York Times Magazine ran an article Is it O.K. to Tinker with the Environment to Fight Climate Change?  The article asks about the ethics of even running tests on such methods and has this quote froms David Battisti, an atmospheric scientist at UW.
Name a technology humans have developed that they haven't used. I can't think of any. So we can work on this for sure. But we are in this dilemma: Once we do develop this technology, it will be tempting to use it.
The article skirts the question on who makes this decision. Maybe the United Nations after some unlikely agreement among major powers. But what if the UN doesn't act and some billionaire decides to fund a project?

As computer scientists we start to face these questions as software in our hyper-connected world starts to change society in unpredictable ways. How do we balance privacy, security, usability and fairness in communications and machine learning? What about net neutrality, self-driving cars, autonomous military robots? Job disruption from automation?

We have governments to deal with these challenges. But the world seems to have lost trust in its politicians and governments don't agree. How does one set different rules across states and countries which apply to software services over the Internet?

All too often companies set these policies, at least the default policies until government steps in. Uber didn't ask permission to completely change the paid-ride business and only a few places pushed back. Google, Facebook, etc. use machine learning with abandon, until some governments try and reign them in. The Department of Defense and the NSA, in some sense industries within government, set their policies often without public debate.

What is our role as computer scientists? It's not wrong to create the technologies, but we should acknowledge the ethical questions that come with them and what we technically can and cannot do to address them. Keep people informed so the decision makers, whomever they be, at least have the right knowledge to make their choices.


  1. It's June, maybe time for the jobs post?

  2. A technology developed and thankfully never used: H-Bombs.

  3. Tough times ahead indeed...
    I would be tempted to say that nowadays the politicians (who actually make the critical decisions), on the left, right, middle and margins have grown ever more dishonest and malignants but that's probably not true, a quick look at history shows a lot of horrendous scoundrels.
    The trouble is... the impacts of modern technologies is orders of magnitude above the ancient ways of disemboweling the "enemy" as we got a taste of the "new ways" in WWII (by both sides BTW).
    However, this will necessarily come to an equilibrium, if the new technologies bring unsustainable stress to the system they will destroy their own basis and something else will emerge.
    (direct consequence of Ross Ashby homeostasis idea which seems a bit forgotten by now)