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03/07/2019 Hey, Computer Scientists!

Stop Hating on the Humanities | WIRED

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EMMA PIERSON OPINION 04.24.17 10:00 AM

HEY, COMPUTER SCIENTISTS!


STOP HATING ON THE
HUMANITIES

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GETTY IMAGES

AS A COMPUTER science PhD student, I am a disciple of big data. I see no ground


too sacred for statistics: I have used it to study everything from sex to
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Shakespeare, and earned angry retorts for these attempts to render the SUBSCRIBE

ineffable mathematical. At Stanford I was given, as a teenager, weapons both


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elegant and lethal—algorithms that could pick out the terrorists most worth
targeting in a network, detect someone's dissatisfaction with the government
from their online writing.

WIRED OPINION
ABOUT
Emma Pierson (@2plus2make5) is a Rhodes Scholar and computer science PhD student at Stanford.

Computer science is wondrous. The problem is that many people in Silicon


Valley believe that it is all that matters. You see this when recruiters at career
fairs make it clear they're only interested in the computer scientists; in the
salary gap between engineering and non-engineering students; in the quizzical
looks humanities students get when they dare to reveal their majors. I've
watched brilliant computer scientists display such woeful ignorance of the
populations they were studying that I laughed in their faces. I've watched
military scientists present their lethal innovations with childlike enthusiasm
while making no mention of whom the weapons are being used on. There are
few things scarier than a scientist who can give an academic talk on how to
shoot a human being but can't reason about whether you should be shooting
them at all.

The fact that so many computer scientists 2


A r t i c l e s L e f t T are
h i s M ignorant
onth or disdainful of non-
technical approaches is worrisome because in my work, I'm constantly
confronting questions
You that
have read can't
half yourbe answered with
complimentary code.for
articles When I coded at
the month.
Coursera, an online education company, I developed an algorithm that would
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recommend classes to people in part based on their gender. But the company
decided not to use it when we discovered it would push women away from
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computer science classes.

It turns out that this effect—where algorithms entrench societal disparities—is


one that occurs in domains from criminal justice to credit scoring. This is a
difficult dilemma: In criminal justice, for example, you're confronted with the
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fact that an algorithm that fulfills basic statistical desiderata is also a lotSUBSCRIBE
more
likely to rate black defendants as high-risk even when they will not go on to
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commit another crime.

I don't have a solution to this problem. I do know, however, that I won't find it in
my algorithms textbook; I'm far more likely to find relevant facts in Ta-Nehisi
Coates's work on systemic discrimination or Michelle Alexander's on mass
incarceration.

My personal coding projects have presented similarly thorny ethical questions.


Should I write a computer program that will download the communications of
thousands of teenagers suffering from eating disorders posted on an anorexia
advice website? Write a program to post anonymous, suicidal messages on
hundreds of college forums to see which colleges offer the most support? My
answer to these questions, incidentally, was "no". But I considered it. And the
glory and peril of computers is that they magnify the impact of your whims: an
impulse becomes a program that can hurt thousands of people.

Perhaps it's more efficient to allow computer scientists to do what we're best at
—writing code—and have other people regulate our products? This is
insufficient. Coders push products out at blinding speed, often cloaked in
industry secrecy; by the time legislation catches up, millions of people could be
harmed. Ethics training is required for professionals in other fields in part
because it's important for doctors and lawyers to be able to act ethically even
when no one's looking over their shoulders. Further, computer scientists need
to help craft regulations because they have the necessary technical expertise;
it's hard to regulate algorithmic bias 2
in word embeddings if you have no idea
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Here are some steps forward. Universities should start with broader training
for computer science students. I contacted eight of the top undergraduate
programs in computer science, and found that most do not require students to
take a course on ethical and social issues in computer science (although some
offer optional courses). Such courses are hard to teach well. Computer
scientists often don't take them seriously, are uncomfortable with non-
quantitative thinking, are overconfident because they're mathematically
brilliant, or are convinced that utilitarianism is the answer to everything. But
universities need to try. Professors need to scare their students, to make them
feel they've been given the skills not just to get rich but to wreck lives; they
need to humble them, to make them realize that however good they might be at
math, there's still so much they don't know.

A more socially focused curriculum would not only make coders less likely to
cause harm; it might also make them more likely to do good. Top schools
squander far too much of their technical talent on socially useless, high-paying
pursuits like algorithmic trading. As Andrew Ng, a Stanford computer scientist,
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admonished a roomful of Stanford students he was trying to recruit to
Coursera: "You have to ask yourself, why did I study computer science? And for
You have
a lot of students, theread half seems
answer your complimentary
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There are many steps tech companies should take as well. Organizations should
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explore the social and ethical issues their products create: Google and Microsoft
deserve credit for researching algorithmic discrimination, for example, and
Facebook for investigating echo chambers. Make it easier for external
researchers to evaluate the impacts of your products: be transparent about how

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your algorithms work and provide access to data under appropriate data SUBSCRIBE
use
agreements. (Researchers also need to be allowed to audit algorithms without
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being prosecuted.) Ask social or ethical questions in hiring interviews, not just
algorithmic ones; if hiring managers asked, students would learn how to answer
them. (Microsoft's CEO was once asked, in a technical interview, what he would
do if he saw a baby lying in an intersection: the obvious answer to pick up the
baby did not occur to him).

Companies should hire the people harmed or excluded by their products: whose
faces their computer vision systems don't recognize and smiles their emojis
don't capture, whose resumes they rank as less relevant and whose housing
options they limit, who are mobbed by online trolls they helped organize and do
little to control. Hire non-computer-scientists, and bring them in for lunchtime
talks; have them challenge the worldviews of the workforce.

It's possible that listening to non-computer scientists will slow the Silicon
Valley machine: Diverse worldviews can produce argument. But slowing down
in places where reasonable people can disagree is a good thing. In an era where
even elections are won and lost on digital battlefields, tech companies need to
move less fast and break fewer things.

#ALGORITHMS #COMPUTER SCIENCE #EDUCATION

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