Writing08: Artificial Intelligence

I believe that artificial intelligence is just like every new technology that emerges, it is a tool. It is neither good or bad, rather it is how we humans choose to use it. That being said, some technologies lend themselves more easily to negative consequences than others. Artificial intelligence is one that has large gains on both sides. As has been seen with AI machines like AlphaGo or IBM’s Watson, artificial intelligence is not simply a gimmick, it has real potential and applications. If AI can beat top players of Chess, Jeopardy, or Go it is clear that AI can edge out human ability, at least if sufficiently specialized. Some of the most promising applications for artificial intelligence are in the medical field. A faster, more accurate diagnostic tool is pretty hard technology to vilify. However, AI also has applications that have murkier morality. If you can specialize AI to do anything, why not specialize it to kill? One use for AI that the military seems particularly interested in is facial recognition, which would allow for easier identification and termination of enemy combatants. But when stateside, how about using facial recognition to identify criminals? Sounds promising, until you realize that current AI is very flawed. Bias entering the system, whether by design or by poor implementation, is a problem that is not close to being fixed. Artificial Intelligence is still in an incubation stage, yet some people worry about robots taking over now. AI is nowhere near what people could potentially consider sentient; it is evident that there must be improvements on the order of leaps and bounds within the field before that question is even relevant. But it is plain to see that even with Artificial Intelligence being in an early stage, it is still powerful enough that we must take care not to misuse its current capabilities.

Those applications of AI are more software based and abstract, but what about the increasing automation of every industry? There are obvious pros and cons to each side. On the negative side, jobs that formerly belonged to human workers are being taken by machines. Not just blue collar factory jobs, but also jobs in other industries are being displaced by increased automation. Ever walk into a McDonald’s and order at the kiosk? One less person the corporation has to pay. The most concerning thing about this is that a job that used to formerly be done by thousands of people, can now be handled by a machine and a handful of humans to maintain and surveil it. At a certain point you have to consider that a more productive world does not guarantee a better world for people. However, it cannot be denied that automation has plenty of upside as well. Automation allows for cheaper products for consumers. When people first hear that, some tend to think more about non-essential products like toys or snacks, but the creation of essential life-saving medicine can also be automated and made cheaply accessible to people. The virtue of automation requiring so few people is also its vice, removing those jobs from the economy. Once again, we must take care to properly use this technology wisely, and properly aid those who are affected by automation.

Writing 07: Censorship

In the first class this week, we discussed the pros and cons of Net Neutrality. For the most part, we students seemed to believe that Net Neutrality is ultimately a good, and I stand by that. I personally feel that the Internet is as essential to modern life as water or electricity, and hence should be treated as a public utility. There are so few service providers available to most Americans; about 40% only have access to one or none, and a majority have access only to 1 or 2. With such cornered markets, you have to logically fear monopolies gouging customers and restricting access to certain sites. If your Internet Service Provider makes a deal with the New York Times and throttles (or outright blocks) the Washington Post, that is a gentle form of censorship. Additionally, we have to worry about the bundling that is occurring between Internet Service Providers and online services. While free bundling seems nice, it allows a company to select which platforms win or lose (like picking Hulu over Netflix), rather than the market deciding based on each platform’s merit. I know some people spoke about how that was unfair due to the current pricing model, where there is a flat fee and some use more internet than others. But I contend that people truly feel that the current system is so disastrous, then moving to a system where you pay for what you use would be fair in those eyes, and still congruent with the ideals of Net Neutrality. We have to have barriers against monopolistic control and market manipulation, as access to the Internet has become a basic right.

But that was speaking about censorship on the order of providing access to the Internet, what about censoring its content? I personally believe that those who own websites fall into a strange gray area between a content medium and a publishing authority. Obviously, a company should not be penalized for one rogue user simply posting a terrorism manifesto. But if that type of content is allowed to stay up and proliferate, if they do not take it down, then a larger issue arises. Online censorship is a necessary evil. I have distaste for the idea that a corporation will decide what is and is not appropriate.. Censorship harms not only those who are being hateful and divisive, but also those who simply fall outside the norm of acceptability. But I understand that when individuals with harmful goals are given a platform that allows them to carry it out, we must take action, so there must be some moderation of content online. I believe that most of the responsibility for this should lie with the individual actually posting the content, that they should be held accountable for their dangerous/hateful ideas, but I think some responsibility also falls to the forum that hosts such ideas. Leaving up harmful content like hate speech or other immoral content implicitly approves of (or at least tolerates) it, and sends a message that such things are okay. Obviously in real life if someone started yelling racial slurs in their company building they would not allow it. So why allow it online?

Writing06: Corporate Conscience

The notion that a corporation should be understood as a person, having the same rights as one in the eyes of the law, has both valid merit and fault. The reality is that it should be treated partially as a person, but not given the full extent of rights extended to actual people. Luckily, the United States understands this at least somewhat, with companies not possessing fifth amendment rights while having the right to make and enforce contracts held with individuals or other companies. However, the notion to which companies are extended personhood is absurd, especially when they are not held accountable for their actions to the same extent that actual humans are. Whenever a company makes a large mistake to which they must be held accountable, like negligence of safety regulations, they are slapped with a fine rather than fully prosecuted as a citizen would be. This double standard allows employees of the company to be treated as collective and avoid true justice for their actions, hiding behind the veil of the company name and offloading any moral responsibility. This is an egregious breach of justice, but there will never be any accountability until we properly trace the company’s actions back to individuals.

So corporations should not be afforded all the rights of a person, that is fair enough. But should companies be allowed to grow as large as they can possibly become? The United States found an answer to this quandary slightly over a century ago, notably since Standard Oil was broken due to it being found to have a monopoly on the oil industry. The government recognized that when one company has a stranglehold on a specific part of the economy, they will do everything they can to crush competition, exploit consumers, and will not be motivated to innovate due to the fact that they are the only one that consumers have the ability to purchase from. This does not breed the competition we consider the hallmark of our capitalist system, so the government rightfully decided that when a single company grows too large, it must be broken up to encourage competition. This is not an archaic issue reserved for the industrial revolution, however. My father has told me stories of how AT&T used to gouge him as a consumer in the seventies and early eighties before there was any company that could compete in telecom. However, it seems in recent years we have forgotten this lesson. Microsoft was allowed to systematically steamroll companies so that they could not compete with them, notably Netscape, without any real consequence. A breakup of the company was ordered, until it was rolled back. In the end they escaped relatively unscathed, setting the precedent for several companies to get away with monopolistic practices, and to my eyes it seems this is a keen problem especially among software companies. Companies like Facebook or Google, they are concerningly large and utilize anti-competitive practices, but face no consequences. I am not saying that they must be broken up, but they must be held accountable for their monopolistic practices.

Writing 05: Privacy vs Security

In class this week, we explored the trade-off that sometimes is necessary between individual privacy and national security. Nowhere else was this better shown than the case between Apple and the FBI about unlocking the phone of a San Bernardino shooter, and the debate that we had in class about Apple and the FBI afterward. The FBI had obtained an iPhone from the site of the shooting, but could not unlock the iPhone so tried to compel Apple to weaken the passcode features on the iPhone through the All Writs Act of 1789. Specifically, the FBI wanted Apple to remove the limit on number of attempts and the delay after incorrect attempts, while adding the ability to use software to input the passcode attempts instead of by hand. Apple refused, implying that creating an iPhone with these alterations was dangerous, and a slippery slope towards mass surveillance by the government.

Going into the class, I was one of the many students who marked Apple as the correct party in the debate, as I held that personal privacy is an essential right that cannot be infringed upon. But, I think I was slightly misinformed when I came into the room. I had conflated the government’s desire to install a backdoor for their use only in communication software (like Attorney General Barr was speaking about) with their goal to unlock this specific iPhone. I still believe that a government backdoor in communication software is wrong, spying on citizens and creating vulnerabilities that everyone, not just the government, will exploit. Especially since mass surveillance of citizens has been shown to be ineffective at preventing crime. But in the specific case of the Bernardino shooter, where one of several shooters in a mass shooting had a locked phone that could hold information that would help prevent future attacks, and the “backdoor” requested for one single physical phone after they had obtained a warrant, I believe that the FBI is actually correct. I did not realize that the nature of their request was for one single phone, not the actual software. For Apple to fear monger by claiming this software they made would somehow be released into the wider world to break into your phone is ludicrous, since they simply could have unlocked the one single phone using the already existing genius bar technology and then handing it to the FBI, without any exchange of company software.

In any case, this was one specific case that involves investigation of a a physical phone, as opposed to a larger more general government desire for information in cyberspace. While in Russia or China companies cooperate with the government and hand over the personal information and communications of their customers, the USA is “sitting in the dark”, comparatively. End-to-End encryption makes it so only the sender and recipient can see a message, allowing for total privacy. Which sounds great, until you realize it is also utilized by human trafficking organizations and terrorist organizations to avoid detection by law enforcement. I do not know how to navigate this specific issue, to be honest. I will not cede my right to privacy, so I cannot stand for the government intentionally creating backdoors in computer security, but I also cannot just ignore the problems that arise from total privacy. Perhaps one day there might actually exist some “reasonable security”, but in the current world any attempt to create that is really just creating vulnerabilities.

Writing04: Whistleblowing

Whistleblowing seems to be a hard choice that is often looked down upon. Whistleblowers used to be derisively referred to as “muckrakers”, implying that all they did was sift through muck, looking for an issue to disgust the public while not providing any solutions to the problem they expose. I believe this term does a disservice to those who act as whistleblowers. As Roger Boisjoly said, “[whistleblowing] destroyed my career, my life, everything else.” Clearly whistleblowing is not done for glory or public approval when it is about so dire a topic. What good then is whistleblowing, if it will destroy your life? I think the answer can be found right in the name. You blow into a whistle not just to create a harsh, shrill sound that grabs peoples’ attention, but also to notify them of something urgent. The public has a right and a need to be informed about crimes and injustice, even if that information comes with a price.

Despite the necessity of whistleblowing, it is a huge and hard decision to make. Each one of the whistleblowers we read about this week reflected and agonized over the decision to come forward with the critical information. They understood that sharing such information can destroy your life. Was revealing the hidden information really worth that? What obligation do they hold to the public, that warrants such self-sacrifice? I do not know if I could make the same decision, if I knew the consequences that would follow. And when you blow the whistle, how much information are you going to share? In some instances, like exposing a cover-up of a safety issue in a car, whistleblowing is easily justified. But when it bleeds into the gray area, whenever you have the choice to leak sensitive government information, does the same justification remain? How much of a right does the government have to secrecy, if any? Revealing classified information can harm government officials and agents, but if it exposes criminal overreaches would it not also hold those people accountable? I think there is a lot of consideration that must be had about what information should be shared, but ultimately I believe if you witness the government’s hidden abuses of power, you should reveal the information.

I think the most important reason to blow the whistle, to expose the truth and put your neck on the line, is the hope for a better future. The only way to stop hidden injustices to to shed the light of day upon them. There is no guarantee that revealing the hidden crimes of the government, corporation, or whatever will actually result in change. What if the public is uninterested or simply accepts the crime as an unfortunate reality? What if they care, but only for a week? Unfortunately, this can and has happened. But if we want to right the wrongs of the world and hold people accountable for their actions, the first step is to put the truth into the public domain. What is done with the information afterward is for the world to decide, but the chance for correction should be taken.

Writing 03: Diversity, Codes of Conduct

Today, there is a push for greater diversity across society, whether in regards to race, gender, sexuality, or other marginalized groups. This is happening at all levels of society, be it in the media we consume or the industries we work in. So it should come as no surprise that our community is receiving this push as well. Some people question the validity of this push, but it is obvious that a welcoming atmosphere, diversity, and inclusivity in the computing and technology community is important, and it is good that the current lack thereof is starting to be addressed. This is a moral imperative, make no mistake.

I believe the most important steps to achieving a welcoming, diverse, and inclusive community in computing and technology is to simply bring those diverse people into the community. The distance felt by those who feel isolated in the community is mitigated if they can see someone like them in the computer science. As several of my classmates shared this week, when you are a minority trying to make your way into a field, you definitely have been supported by those minorities who came before you. Once you add a few members who have been marginalized into the community, they will passionately fight so that in the future people will not have to overcome the same discrimination they faced.

Another extremely important part to creating an inclusive community in the computing and technology community is to work to eliminate stereotypes. Ideas like girls being less equipped to code due to being “more emotional” or the idea that any minority in a workplace was selected to fill a diversity quota, not due to their merit and ability, are harmful and contribute to the lack of diversity in computer science. It is important to work to eliminate this ignorance, but I am less optimistic about the computer science community being able to successfully tackle this issue. The problem is that these ideas are more deeply ingrained in culture, so you cannot fix this entirely within the community. Not to say there is nothing that can be done, just that this is a broader cultural issue that must be addressed outside the community for permanent change.

Switching gears a bit, there seems to be a bit of a growing idea that speaking in a “PC” manner in the tech community is censorship, that it violates free speech. They look at James Damore as a martyr of some sort. First, I would note that many of the people referring to it as censorship ignore that there were no legal repercussions for Damore (in fact he is in the midst of a lawsuit against Google). James was allowed to say what he wanted, just as Google was allowed to fire him for violating their Code of Conduct. Damore chose to circulate this memo internally at Google. If he had chosen a different avenue to share his same ideas, like a public forum,  I do not think he would have been fired, since these actions would then be taking place outside the workplace. Either way, he did share them on an internal mailing list, and Google rightfully fired him for it.

Writing02: Employment

My experience with the hiring process in the Computer Science industry has been hit-or-miss. My first two years of college, I failed to obtain any internship over the summer. After not getting anything after my first year of school I was not really worried, as I had been told it was rare for first years to get internships. Applying to internships sophomore year felt a lot better, as I now had actual programming knowledge and could market myself. Plus, many companies interviewed me or gave me coding challenges, so I knew that I was advancing through the process and learning about how they filtered for candidates. But despite moving farther in the process, I still received no offers. And after not getting an internship sophomore year, I started sweating a bit.

Luckily, this past year I got an internship offer for the summer. I found this opportunity at the Winter Career Fair, speaking to two previous Notre Dame alumni that were there to represent MoreSteam. I spoke with them, gave them a resume, and planned on applying Friday evening. To my surprise, they invited me to schedule a first round email Friday morning before I even applied. I had a single non-technical interview, and they sent me an offer soon afterwards which I accepted.

I had a wonderful internship, the people were great and the work was satisfying. But while I enjoyed the result of my search, examining the process it seems very disjointed. Sophomore year and junior year, I applied to a huge number of companies, and it was only junior year that I received a few offers. And beyond that, only one of the companies that made me an offer tested my technical skill in any way. So looking at how hiring is done within the industry, it seems strange because every company has its own criteria.

Looking broadly across the field, general trends emerge. Just as with most other industries, the hiring process hugely relies on networking. This already stacks the game in favor of those with the means to attend these events and to be seen as a desirable candidate. Due to the bias that comes with relying on networking, the hiring process cannot be seen as truly ethical, though this is a problem that most will encounter regardless of what career they pursue. Despite this reliance on networking, there are some technical tests that often happen during the hiring process, “coding challenges”. These often have little relevance to what you would actually work on, but the idea is that it will show your skill at programming and preparedness for the interview. Though the industry is rife with these ineffective practices, technical companies still seem to be hiring everyone they need to. So I would say that while the hiring process is not the most efficient, it seems to be effective. And really, as we read earlier this week, there is no perfect process to hire anybody, so these inefficient ways will never be completely rectified. My hope is that the industry will shift towards a process that is less biased towards those with money and connections.

Writing 01: Identity

When asked what my identity is, I often have to pause and think. Which identity are we talking about? Are we referring to the identity created by social factors? Then I am a cis-gendered straight white male. Are we referring to the identity that sounds like a personality? In that case I am loud, friendly family man from a small-town. But this dichotomy is deceptive because everyone has multiple identities and everyone has one identity. An important concept when it comes to topics of identity is that of intersectionality. One’s identity does not come from looking at all of their identities in isolation, but rather looking at how each identity (male, white, straight, etc.) combines and intersects to define a person. So while I am a man, I am also a white man (and so on and so forth), and each of these definitions carries with it a bit more meaning.

Identity is a strange mix of what you are born with and personal choice. By this I mean that certain aspects of your identity, such as your ethnicity, are not up to your decision. But other parts of your identity, such as your profession, are determined by your own personal choices. Most of the big social markers that we think about, like sexuality, are those that we are given. Which makes it all the more unfair considering the world at large places great value on these traits. But remember, you are also defined by the identity you choose for yourself. While you people will always see and define you by factors beyond your control, people will also see and define you by your own chosen identifiers. Your personal identity intersects with your social identity.

Looking at my own social identity it is easy to see that I have the most privileged combination of all major factors, save for class. This greatly impacts both how I see the world and how the world sees me. All my life I have been shielded from prejudice and steeped in privilege; the world has been exceptionally forgiving of my errors. When I made a mistake, it was taken as a misstep on a path to high achievement, as opposed to an indication of some greater failing. Due to how kindly the world has treated me, I definitely see the world in a softer light. But because I can see that this kindness was also born out of my privilege, I know that I must turn a critical eye to the world. I must call out injustice and inequality in the world, and I must use the power that I possess due to my privilege to help rectify these wrongs. I have seen what a good life is like and I am optimistic that one day this will not be a privileged life, it will be the standard. But if you take one look around the world, you know that we are centuries away from this dream. One day, however, I believe it will be a reality.

Writing00: Ethical Responsiblity

As this senior class approaches the end of our college career, the question of living ethically becomes even more relevant as we enter into the working world. I say even more relevant because we should have been (and should currently be) striving to live as best we could during college. While the question of how to live ethically should not have been put on pause, I believe that some of us fell into inaction during these four years. Due to the stress of the academic year and the many social distractions available, I feel that I did not fully strive to live the most responsible life that I could. Honestly, I don’t believe I will ever live a completely morally responsible life, being human. But I certainly can improve. And now that I will be applying the talents I have cultivated throughout my schooling at a “real world” job, I must make sure that these talents are being used responsibly.

But what does that mean, exactly? I believe that to responsibly use my talents I must carefully consider what I am working on and what I am doing outside of work. As to the first consideration, obviously I should work on a project where my talents would benefit others, but the world is not always clear-cut as to what is the greatest good and I have personal desires to consider. While working at a non-profit would definitely be more directly applicable to helping the world than optimizing stock trading algorithms, I am unsure if I would find the work satisfying, and I would prefer larger paycheck from the for-profit company. Even if I did work for a non-profit in computer science, it is still unclear if that would be where I could have the most impact. The ultimate results of our actions are unclear. Similarly to Sophie, I had a time where I was disheartened by the fact that computer science is often not directly applicable to solving the dire problems in the world. But while an algorithm cannot build a bridge, I know that programming can be utilized to help solve these problems when used in conjunction with other talents.

Ultimately, I will have to balance my personal desires with my moral compass to ensure that I am working at a job that is benefitting others. But working at an ethically responsible job is not the end of my moral obligation, and my talents are not just those I will use at work. I believe that to be a good person you must strive for virtue in all aspects of life. Things like maintaining interpersonal relationships or volunteering in your local community are not things you do at your job, but are still extremely important to living a responsible life.

But let us say for the sake of the argument that I have found a good, righteous company to work for. I know that what I am working on will help the world. I still have not fully fulfilled my obligation, as I must work to the extent of my ability. I cannot simply strive for mediocrity. I have an obligation to use and develop my abilities as best I can, as we see in the Parable of the Talents. And while I will still fall short of this obligation, just as with all the other moral imperatives spoken about previously, by striving for it I will be a better person.