Computer Science & Society – The Roles Defined

Posted by Samuel Tettner at Feb 17, 2011 07:00 AM |
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Computer Science has had a big impact on the growth of modern society. In today’s world keeping in mind the intersection between society and technology, creating powerful machines alone isn’t enough rather the role of computer science in society is undergoing a change, says Samuel Tettner in this blog post.

This week much fuzz is being made about Watson, an IBM super computer that handily defeated two of the most successful Jeopardy! champions and made it look easy. This event coincides with an interview in Time magazine with Ray Kurzweil, an American author, inventor and futurist involved in fields such as optical character recognition (OCR), text-to-speech synthesis, speech recognition technology, and electronic keyboard instruments. As a technology enthusiast he often talks about artificial intelligence and is a firm believer in ‘the singularity’, a moment in time when computers will become more intelligent than human beings.  

These two events are representative of a society-wide fascination we have with machines that can become ‘smarter’ than us. Such fascination is the substance of popular science fiction as prophesied by the likes of Isaac Asimov and Douglas Adams. I think this sub-culture has taken hold of mainstream computer science, with the announced arrival of the ‘Network Society’ and the insane profit software and IT companies have accumulated in the 90s and the 00s. The cult of information has reached too far. The technological cloud of today, like the market of yesterday, is more and more conceived as something omnipresent, both being everywhere and nowhere, and omniscient, capable of knowing everything. Those who believe the cloud is going to save us all with its super human powers are as blinded as those free market ideologues who thought liberalization would bring democracy, peace and stability in the early 90s. This tendency to elevate our human practices and hold them as outside of ourselves, in the pursuit of something greater than ourselves has potential damaging consequences.

There was a time when technological advances in the field of computer science were greatly beneficial to society. With more raw computational powers novel understandings of the world were possible: Everything from statistical models of weather patterns, to the sequencing of the human genome, to improvements in telecommunication greatly benefited from them. We allocated millions of dollars to research and development because there was a premise that with greater computation, better understanding of the world would be possible which in turn would lead us to live healthier and more productive lives. Today however, our most pressing global issues benefit less and less from raw technological advances. Global climate change and environmental destruction are not issues because we lack the tools to analyze the complicated mathematical models which describe the effects human societies have on the planet for example. IBM says that it plans to use the powerful computer in the health care sector: “IBM researchers are working to apply the system to business uses, such as helping physicians and nurses find answers within huge volumes of information. A doctor considering a patient's diagnosis could use Watson's analytics technology along with Nuance's voice and clinical language understanding offerings to rapidly consider all the related texts, reference materials, prior cases and latest knowledge in medical journals to gain information from more potential sources then previously possible, making the physician more confident in the patient's diagnosis.”1

I find it impossible not to ask if these are really the areas where we ought to concentrate of scientific efforts. Take for example a society like the USA, where IBM is located. Diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and smoking-related illnesses, which cause society billions of dollars a year, are highly preventable. Public health campaigns and changes in eating patterns are more promising than advances in technology when it comes to solving issues like this. 

Don’t get me wrong, computer science has an important role to play in society.  I don’t think this role needs to continue being framed as a race to build the most powerful machine. One of the bigger impacts of digital technologies in the last few years has been the usage of social media in political and social causes. The revolutions in Iran and Egypt most recently are examples of how digital technologies played major roles in societal transformations. And yet, the technological side of twitter and Facebook is very simple, certainly very simple compared to the room-sized, 90 servers and 360 computer chips Watson. More and more, the interplay between society and technology is becoming the determinant factor in determining the impact of the technology. This signifies in my opinion a transition point in the field of computer science— it is no longer enough to build faster, more powerful machines with more raw computing power.

While we continue to imagine our role with digital technology as one of creator-creation we will always run the risk of pulling a Frankenstein. While we continue to attribute value to technologies based on their sheer computing power and not on their application to social causes we make it easier to displace our objectives and goals. We have to demystify computer science similar to how we had to demystify economics a couple of years ago with studies about the irrationality of human beings. Markets are made of people, and computers are made by and for people. We cannot continue to conceive ‘the cloud’ as a dehumanized identity foreign and above ourselves.  The idolization of computers and of computer systems only pushes us further from achieving tangible results.


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Samuel Tettner

The child of Jewish Romanian immigrant and Italian-Venezuelan parents, Samuel has always had an eclectic identity and personality. At age 15, he emigrated to the United States and went on to study public policy with a concentration on philosophy, science & technology. Since January 2010, Samuel resides in India, where he co-coordinates the Digital Natives with a Cause? project. His interests include information and innovation systems, technology-enabled education, knowledge networks, and all that is open-source, collaborative and dynamic.