Group Says Computer Scientists Need To Remove "Rose-Colored Glasses"

Future of Computing Academy Advocates More Consideration of Tech's Negative Impacts

Jeff Bigham is part of the Future of Computing Academy, which suggests that the peer-review process needs to be more rigorous, with authors required to seriously assess both the benefits and potential pitfalls of their research.

Computer scientists too often view their work through rose-colored glasses and must give greater consideration to technology's potential negative impact when they publish their findings, says a new group that hopes to chart the future for computing professionals.

A blog post today by the Association for Computing Machinery's Future of Computing Academy (FCA) suggests that the peer-review process for research papers in computing needs to be more rigorous, with authors required to seriously assess not only the potential benefits of the research, but also the possible pitfalls.

Jeff Bigham, associate professor in Carnegie Mellon University's Human-Computer Interaction Institute and a member of the FCA, said the blog post has been in the works for months, but is particularly relevant now in light of controversies surrounding the use of personal data obtained through Facebook.

"Machine learning over social media data can be used to make organizations function better and to improve how people feel about themselves and others," he said. "Unfortunately, as the recent news about Cambridge Analytica shows, some of the same technical approaches can be used to manipulate people.

"We aren't saying that this work shouldn't be done just because it could have negative consequences," added Bigham, a co-signator of the blog post. "We are simply advocating for the potential negative outcomes to be stated explicitly, so they can be balanced with the positive ones, potentially guiding our decisions about what to work on, where society should focus its resources and, ultimately, the direction we want our science to go in."

A research paper on automating home care for older adults, for instance, might now highlight how technology could reduce costs and eliminate time-consuming tasks for workers, the group's blog post said. But it also should address potential large-scale job loss that would occur if technology development is successful.

"There clearly is a massive gap between the real-world impacts of computing research and the positivity with which we in the computing community view our work," the FCA stated in the post. "We believe that this gap represents a serious and embarrassing intellectual lapse."

"What's more, the public has definitely caught on to our community-wide blind spot and is understandably suspicious of it," the blog said.

Insisting that authors take a more balanced view of their work would increase the intellectual vigor of computing research and would give researchers an incentive to change the technologies they create to have more positive outcomes, the group said. Mitigating the downsides of existing and new technologies would also increase public support for the computing community.

The FCA is a new initiative created by ACM, the world's largest educational and scientific computing society, to support and foster the next generation of computing professionals. The ACM describes the academy as a platform that enables the next generation of researchers, practitioners, educators and entrepreneurs to develop a coherent and influential voice that addresses challenging issues facing the field and society in general.

"Computer science has enjoyed several decades of time in which its impacts have been viewed almost entirely positively, and for good reasons," Bigham said. "But, like other fields that have matured, we believe we are now at the point where computing technology can have real impact on the world, and that impact won't always be positive. We believe we are now at a point where it is especially vital that we start paying attention, in advance, to the net broader impacts of what we choose to work on."

Byron Spice | 412-268-9068 | bspice@cs.cmu.edu