“What are the implications of the computing world—as some people see it—having taken over the world?” Dr. Bobby Schnabel asked a large group of students and professors at a computer science colloquium last Tuesday. Currently the CEO of the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM), Schnabel described the evolution of computer science in relation to society and then challenged the audience to consider the many ethical implications of this development.
“I have a house in Boulder but my home is seat 21D,” joked Schnabel. He received his PhD from Cornell University and then moved to the University of Colorado at Boulder and the University of Indiana.
He is the founding director of Atlas and one of the co-founders of the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT). Schnabel was appointed CEO of the ACM last November and has goals to help the organization grow internationally in addition to promoting its current initiatives in education and information.
“I would argue that [computing] has become more of a socio-technical discipline than a purely technical discipline,” Schnabel explained. While computer science began as a very narrow field limited only to certain individuals, he illustrated how computing’s recent migration to other fields and industries has evoked widespread participation.
Ultimately, computing’s new role in fields such as health, entertainment, biology, and transportation necessitates careful ethical consideration.
“There is a crazy tradeoff between privacy and security,” Schnabel expressed. It is common for people to resist any kind of technological surveillance, but others praise technology’s power in promoting safety. For instance, using social media to propagate photographs to the general public helped law enforcement to quickly capture and apprehend the Boston Marathon bombers.
Schnabel also utilized the example of self-driving cars to describe how computing can simultaneously bolster and weaken other industries. While autonomous cars would decrease demand for insurance, driver training, and traffic officers, this technology would alternatively increase demand for car entertainment and could radically impact the way that cities are structured.
“This isn’t all positive,” he conceded. “There are some negatives.” In addition to concerns over privacy, members of the audience expressed concerns about technology’s added expense for families on a budget, the idea that there will always be some sort of barrier between technology and society, and social media’s vast capability to rapidly spread false news.
Amidst ethical concerns, promoting diversity in technology remains one of ACM and Schnabel’s main focuses.
“Part of the diversity in computing is just thinking of your audience,” he explained.
Schnabel recounted the disastrous story of voice recognition software being trained by only men and thus initially only recognizing male voices. However, lack of diversity can have far more sinister design implications, as with airbags harming women because they were designed solely for the average male.
“The biggest point by far is the creativity that comes from diversity,” Schnabel concluded.