Intelligent tutors

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

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

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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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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The tweetocracy

A session at the New Yorker Festival this past weekend discussing how history will judge Trump got me thinking again about media, tweeting, and Donald J. Trump.

Media play a huge role in politics. Here are some examples. In the medium of a large enclosed space filled with people, Adolf Hitler was able to whip crowds to a frenzy. Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his radio fireside chats reassured Americans that they could and would survive the economic hardships of the Great Depression. Winston Churchill’s stirring oratory during World War II lifted the spirits of people in Great Britain despite the Germans’ intense aerial bombardment.  John F Kennedy‘s photogenic and relaxed television manner when contrasted with Richard Nixon’s swarthy scowling played a huge role in his victory in the 1960 US presidential election.  Finally, Ronald Reagan’s commanding performances in televised addresses and his style of speaking to Americans in ways that they could understand and could trust justified his being called “the great communicator“.

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The importance of research

Many issues discussed in Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives suggest a need for legal remedies, such as the case of monopoly power in digital technology industries.  Other issues raise ethical quandaries, such as the cases of employees of such firms who find actions of their employers immoral.  In almost all cases, such as technology addiction, fake news, and unjust algorithms, wise legal actions and informed moral choices depend upon having good information about what, how, and why things are happening.  This requires research.  In an excerpt from his excellent recent book The New ABCs of Research: Achieving Breakthrough Collaborations, published by Oxford University Press, Emeritus Prof. Ben Shneiderman suggests that what is needed is applied research illuminating context and situations coupled with basic research illuminating causes.

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Power, politics, and the internet

Contributed by Uma Kalkar. Uma is a senior undergraduate at the University of Toronto and 2019-2020 International Presidential Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress researching the politics of domestic and national digital divides.

In 2016, the United Nations classified internet access as a human right, deeming that cutting or censoring the internet by states impinges on personal freedoms. Unfortunately, conflict-heavy zones and politically unstable states deny their citizens unfiltered internet in order to isolate and control discussion and debate. Through internet censorship, governments attempt to hide regime atrocities and to revise history.

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Must computer science students learn about ethics?

My textbook — Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives — may be used in a variety of courses and contexts, but is intended primarily for use by Computer Science (CS) Departments, as they attempt to educate and train tomorrow’s software professionals, managers, and IT leaders. If we want to monitor how well departments are doing this job, we should ask is if they are sensitizing their students to the ethical responsibilities of the profession. It is useful to contrast the attitudes and performance of CS Departments, typically situated in science faculties, with departments in Faculties of Engineering.

Concern over ethics in Engineering began after several major disasters late in the 19th century and early in the 20th century, notably several bridge failures and the Boston molasses disaster, in which a flood or molasses wreaked havoc on nearby building and train systems.  There already had been created professional societies such as the American Society of Civil Engineers and the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.  These societies then moved quickly to introduce Codes of Ethics and requirements for licensing and accreditation, which ultimately caused university departments and faculties to include some learning about and practice with ethical concerns as part of their curricula.  A later development was the creation in 1954 by the National Society of Professional Engineers of a Board of Ethical Review.

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