On Vardi’s ‘To Serve Humanity’ CACM article

Although Vardi has done many fine things, I don’t think this is among his best. There are two main problems in the article (and the Vienna Manifesto), I think, one stemming from a type error and one from an overly broad abstraction.

The first is the treatment of technology as separate from its design/use by humans. It’s not really viable, I suggest, to say that “technology sometimes seems to ‘eat’ humanity”. People use technology to ‘eat’ others, as part of politics, business, and so forth. 

I (of course) agree with his point that (most of) our discipline has not accepted the ‘dual nature of technology’… although there are corners of the discipline for which study and avoidance of negative aspects of computational technology are the subject of everyday work. Why isn’t it alluded to, or referenced?

The second is the overly broad treatment of ‘people’ and ‘humanity’. Vardi treats these terms as if they apply to a homogeneous group of individuals, and ignores something that stems from the previous point: for some people, using technology against other people *is* what they do as humans.

Obviously, but sadly, dominating and exploiting other people has been part of humanity ever since humanity began. It seems pointless to say here that we should put humanity at the centre of our work, if we are to improve the situation… when part of humanity is the problem. There are people fighting already against them… but I don’t see much in this article about what they have done or are doing… 

Also, yes, there is a significant part of humanity within computer science who have similar ill effects unknowingly or naively. I wonder if this is the part that Vardi really wants to influence… or has a chance in hell of influencing…

So… It seems naive (to me) of Vardi to write “Yet the participants [of the Vienna workshop] were convinced it is possible to influence the future of science and technology and, in consequence, society.” Well, yes, sure. Why did he think otherwise? The future of science and technology is continually being influenced by changing societal norms, educational practices, legal regulation, etc. It seems quite bizarre to say (as the Vienna Manifesto puts it) “We encourage our academic communities, as well as industrial leaders, politicians, policy makers, and professional societies all around the globe, to actively participate in policy formation“ when there are already academics, industrialists and so forth engaged in lobbying and other forms of policy formation. What matters is who among these people has the political will and financial clout to influence them in a way that advance the values he wants to advance, and (more importantly?) to overcome those with the political will and financial clout to push things on as they are… or worse.

I do agree with the motivating sentiment of what Vardi and the manifesto say here. I just wish it was better expressed, and dealt more realistically with the momentum and power of the processes already known to be active in stopping what Vardi wants to happen. Some of the manifesto points are great, but some just seem to be woefully simplistic — missing points raised by some of our most recent major technologically-driven problems, or excessively bound up in Western-centric politics, or not seeming to really handle the complexity of fundamental issues (e.g. ‘fairness’).   

I am therefore sad to say that I think that this manifesto, like a lot of other similar moral and ethical frameworks created in and around computer science, will have zero or minimal effect. I’d be very, very happy to be proved wrong, though. 

Author: mjchalmers

Professor of computer science at U. Glasgow, UK.