COVID-19: Computer scientists and CS students can act proactively for good

Contributed by Ronald Baecker, who is an Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at the University of Toronto, co-author of The COVID-19 Solutions Guide and author of Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives (OUP, 2019).

Readers of my blog will recall what I describe as digital dreams and digital nightmares.

Our world has been enriched by digital technologies used for collaboration, learning, health, politics, and commerce. Digital pioneers imagined giving humanity greater control over the universe; augmenting knowledge and creativity; replacing difficult and dangerous physical labour with robot efforts; improving our life span with computationally supported medicine; supporting free speech with enhanced internet reason and dialogue; and developing innovative, convenient, and ideally safe products and services.  Online apps and resources are proving very valuable, even essential, in the era of COVID-19.

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Digital collaboration technologies flourish during COVID-19

Contributed by Ronald Baecker, who is an Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at the University of Toronto, author of Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives, co-author of thecovidguide.com, and author of the forthcoming Digital Dreams Have Become Nightmares: What We Must Do.

For most of human history, dyads and groups were only able to work and play together if they were collocated.  All of this changed in the 19th century, when the first remote collaboration and entertainment technologies — the telegraph, the telephone, and the radio — were developed and widely commercialized.  These were joined in the 20th century by television.  By the middle part of the century, medical images were being transmitted over phone lines; soon thereafter, 2-way television was being used for remote medical consultations.

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Censored contagion on Chinese social media

Contributed by Masashi Crete-Nishihata. Masashi is the Associate Director of The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto.

The Citizen Lab just published a report: Censored Contagion: How Information on the Coronavirus is Managed on Chinese Social Media, authored by Lotus Ruan, Jeffrey Knockel and Masashi Crete-Nishihata.  

Among the key findings in this report, we show that YY, a popular live-stream platform based in China, began to censor keywords related to the coronavirus outbreak on December 31, 2019, only one day after doctors (including the late Dr. Li Wenliang) tried to warn the public about the then unknown virus. 

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Social credit

Contributed by Ronald Baecker, who is an Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at the University of Toronto, author of Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives, co-author of thecovidguide.com, and author of the forthcoming Digital Dreams Have Become Nightmares: What We Must Do.

Nosedive was the first episode of the third season of the British science fiction television anthology Black Mirror.  In this episode, everyone has a mobile phone which, when pointed at another person, reveals his or her name and rating. Everyone has a rating, which ranges from 0 to 5. The following happens continually as you are walking down a street or along the corridor of a building. You give a ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ to each person you pass, based on your instantaneous impression of that person and the nature of the encounter, no matter how trivial or quick the encounter is. A ‘thumps up’ raises that person’s rating a tiny bit; a ‘thumbs down’ lowers it. The other person concurrently rates you. Ratings determine one’s status in life, and the ability to get perks such as housing and travel. Therefore, people are on a never-ending, stressful, and soul-destroying quest to raise their online ratings for real-life rewards. Heroine Lacie desires a better apartment; she has a meltdown as she deals with unsurmountable pressure in the context of her childhood best friend’s wedding.

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Intelligent tutors

Contributed by Ronald Baecker, who is an Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at the University of Toronto, author of Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives, co-author of thecovidguide.com, and author of the forthcoming Digital Dreams Have Become Nightmares: What We Must Do.

In this column, in my textbook, and in a speech “What Society Must Require from AI” I am currently giving around the world, I document some of the hype, exaggerated claims, and unrealistic predictions that workers in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) have been making for over 50 years.  Here are some examples.  Herb Simon, an AI pioneer at Carnegie-Mellon University (CMU), who later won a Novel Prize in Economics, predicted in 1958 that a program would be the world’s best champion by 1967.   Marvin Minsky of MIT, and Ray Kurzweil, both AI pioneers, made absurd predictions (in 1967 and 2005) that AI would achieve general human intelligence by 1980 and by 2045.  John Anderson, discussed below, made the absurd prediction in 1985 that it was already feasible to build computer systems “as effective as intelligent human tutors”.   IBM has recently made numerous false claims about the effectiveness of its Watson technology for domains as diverse as customer support, tax filing, and oncology.

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The age of surveillance capitalism

Contributed by Ronald Baecker, who is an Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at the University of Toronto, author of Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives, co-author of thecovidguide.com, and author of the forthcoming Digital Dreams Have Become Nightmares: What We Must Do.

There is still time to buy a substantive book for the thoughtful techie or concerned citizen in your life.  Allow me to recommend two choices that were published in 2019.  One good option is my wide-ranging textbook Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives, enough said ….  But an unbiased choice is Shoshana Zuboff’s monumental The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.  The author signals her intentions with the book’s subtitle: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.

Zuboff, the Charles Edward Wilson Professor Emerita, Harvard Business School, defines and describes surveillance capitalism (p. 8):

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Ethics throughout a Computer Science curriculum

Contributed by Ronald Baecker, who is an Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at the University of Toronto, author of Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives, co-author of thecovidguide.com, and author of the forthcoming Digital Dreams Have Become Nightmares: What We Must Do.

Every Computer Science student should get significant exposure to the social, political, legal, and ethical issues raised by the accelerating progress in the development and use of digital technologies.

The standard approach is to offer one undergraduate course, typically called Computers and Society or Computer Ethics.  I have done this during the current term at Columbia University, using my new textbook, Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives (OUP, 2019).  We meet twice a week for 75 minutes.  In class, I present key topics covered in the book, and welcome a number of guest speakers who present their own experiences and points of view.  Every class is interactive, as I try to get the students to express their own ideas.  There have been four assignments: a policy brief, a book report, a debate, and a research paper.  Such courses are typically not required by major research universities, which is a mistake, but they are often required by liberal arts colleges.

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Digital technology firms, monopolies, and antitrust actions

Contributed by Ronald Baecker, who is an Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at the University of Toronto, author of Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives, co-author of thecovidguide.com, and author of the forthcoming Digital Dreams Have Become Nightmares: What We Must Do.

Today’s digital technology industries are characterized by intense degrees of corporate concentration.

Amazon revolutionized access to books and continues to grow its market share of both print books and eBook sales — approaching 50% of print sales and more than 90% of eBook sales.  It is also starting to dominate the sale of many other kinds of goods, and now vigorously seeks a dominant market share in sectors such as grocery retailing and pharmacies. Facebook, which owns 54% of the social media market, is responsible for a great deal of the Internet hate speech and fake news nightmares we face today. Google, which revolutionized the business of search, and now owns 76% percent of that market, seems to manipulate the search engine algorithm for its own commercial benefit.  Apple, which demonstrated that it was possible to design for ease of learning and ease of use and still achieve commercial success, now owns 66% of the tablet market and 22% of the mobile phone market, and seems to manipulate the policies of software distribution on its platforms for its own commercial benefit.

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Diverse design thinking in technology

Contributed by Muriam Fancy. Muriam is a masters student at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. She recently completed her BA in Peace, Conflict, and Justice with a double minor in Indigenous Studies; Diaspora & Transnational Studies. She runs Diverse Innovations (@diverseinnovat1), a platform discussing social good technology.

Amazon launched an artificial intelligence (“AI”) system in efforts to revolutionize its recruitment strategy, and found that their AI program was discriminatory against women. A Chicago court implemented an AI system called COMPAS to do a predictive risk analysis of the chances offenders are to re-offend either by committing the same crime that they were charged for or committing a more significant offense. However, the AI system used discriminated against black defendants noting that they will most likely commit a more significant offense in comparison to white defendants – read more in Chapter 11 of Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives

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