Do Computer Scientists Dream about Ethics?
Illustrated by Vassilia Kiakas
The following interview was conducted by Émilie Hellman and with two Dawson computer science students, who preferred to remain anonymous.
What is S.P.A.C.E.? What is TECHNIQUE?
Emilie: Are you aware of something at Dawson called S.P.A.C.E?
Student 1: Space like space?? Like the Space? *hand gesture referring to the sky*
Emilie: S.P.A.C.E is an initiative at Dawson which attempts to create links between the humanities and artistic disciplines and the more scientific disciplines, as well as between school and life in general. It also encourages students to take ownership of their learning and to share their explorations and discoveries in a way that engages the community and encourages discussion. Participants express themselves on various subjects related to a theme, which is different each year. This year’s theme is TECHNIQUE, so I figured who better to interview than computer science students, who also turn out to be studying the opposite (or is it?) from what I learn in my program, Liberal Arts. I imagine computer science as a more modern and technical program whereas Liberal Arts is a lot of reading and writing papers and stuff. What does TECHNIQUE mean for you? What do you associate it with?
Student 1: The way you do something. To be able to do something more specialized. If you get a certain technique and you’re good at it then you’re more specialized at doing one specific task.
Student 2: What he said.
Emilie: Do you think you can learn a technique yourself,on your own? Or is it only something that can be taught to you by someone else? Or maybe it’s both?
Student 1: Other people can learn on their own, I can’t. I can’t self-teach. I’m really bad at it.
Emilie: But, for example, a technique could be like programming, right? But it could also be speaking a language or making good brownies. So does any skill ever stop involving a technique? You said technique was something specific, but pretty much every skill requires technique, from cooking to programming to running. So what’s a technique you would like to master?
Student 1: Like any at all? Playing the guitar.
Student 1: Because I really like it, I play everyday. I would really like to be able to produce something I am proud of.
Emilie: Do you think you can master playing guitar?
Student 1: Yes, I think so, if I put enough effort into it.
Emilie: What’s the next step you could take to master this technique?
Student 1: Practicing, like actually practicing, rather than just playing a bunch of songs that I don’t really know.
Emilie: What’s a song you would really like to learn?
Student 1: “Since I’ve been loving you” by Led Zeppelin
Emilie: What about you?
Student 2: Game development.
Emilie: Are you doing something to master this right now?
Student 2: Practicing and failing. You start writing things and then you test them and they don’t work and eventually they do work I guess.
Emilie: Do you make a plan in advance?
Student 2: You try but then it doesn’t work.
Emilie: Are you asking for help or are you guided by someone to do this? Like teachers or friends?
Student 2: No one I know, but I watch tutorials on Youtube.
Computer Sciences and General Education Arts Courses
Emilie: When you think of a program like Liberal Arts, what is the first thing you think of?
Student 1: Uhm..
Emilie: Don’t be afraid I won’t be insulted.
Student 1: A lot of text analysis and just a lot of analysis in general, which is important because you gain appreciation and understanding of many subjects.
Emilie: And you?
Student 2: I think of my friend in Liberal Arts at Marianopolis.
Emilie: What does he tell you about his program?
Student 2: Essays. He doesn’t like it but he’s almost done. Not much more
Emilie: Same. Do you like your umanities classes? Which ones are you currently taking?
Student 2: My current Humanities class is Dostoevsky and Nietzsche and there’s a lot of readings. I don’t really like it.
Emilie: Why don’t you like it?
Student 2: I have to do as much work for it than in my other computer science classes
Emilie: And you think you should put less work and less time in your non-core classes?
Student 2: Yeah.
Student 1: I like my English class. It’s called Adventure and Fiction. In general I don’t mind my English classes. Humanities is really a gamble; you can get a good one or a bad one
Emilie: If you had the option to not take Humanities or English or both, would you do it?
Student 2: English is not a problem but Humanities I’d look for one with less readings.
Student 1: English I wouldn’t really mind, unless the teacher is really bad. Humanities it really depends on the course.
Emilie: Do you think you struggle in Humanities classes because it is supposedly the opposite of computer science?
Student 2: I don’t struggle in my Humanities, but I don’t like it anyway.
Emilie: And you don’t like it because there’s too much reading?
Student 2: Yeah 400 pages and we’re not even done the semester yet
Emilie: Why do you think there’s so much division between scientific programs like computer science and humanities programs like Liberal Arts?
Student 1: A lot of it is a different thought process. In computer science you don’t really do that much analysis whereas in Liberal Arts it seems to be the main skill. In computer science it’s more problem-solving. I guess it’s mostly the way you approach problems that you’re faced with, essays in your case and projects in our case, which is different
Student 2: What he said.
Emilie: So when did you know that like writing essays and analysis wasn’t your thing?
Student 2: I just find it much less fun.
Emilie: Do you think you guys dislike it because writing essays it not straight to the point and there are many different ways to answer it? Unlike coding where there is only one good answer?
Student 2: The good answer in the arts can be really subjective depending on the teacher and I don’t like that.
Emilie: Do you think Humanities students should take mandatory basic science or coding classes just like you have to take Humanities?
Student 1: Personally I don’t think so. At least not in CEGEP because in CEGEP generally speaking you already kind of know what you want to do or what you’re interested in. If you’re forced to take a math class even though you’re never gonna do math it’s just useless, so that’s why it works well as a complementary.
Student 2: I think no as well. You always hear that everyone should learn to code, but that’s bullshit. Not everyone needs to; it doesn’t help you if you don’t use it ever.
Emilie: But you think it’s fair that you guys take a Humanities class even if what you learn there might not be useful in your programming or coding?
Student 1: Well, English at least you need to develop it because you are going to speak it and write for the rest of your life. Humanities I wouldn’t really be opposed if it was or wasn’t mandatory. It does force you to think differently with the kind of assignments you get in these classes.
A Need For Cross-Disciplinary Discussion?
Emilie: As you know, there have been numerous recent attempts at incorporating Ethics into A.I. Computer scientists have reached out to Philosophy or Humanities teachers for guidance and they have worked together. Computer scientists have realized that if we want A.I. to take on a bigger place in society, as it seems like it inevitably will, we will need them to be able to make moral choices about how to use it, because behind even the most sophisticated form of A.I. is a human mind programming it. To trust artificial intelligence in health fields, in any situation where it was making potentially life-and-death decision, you would need to believe it can be used ethically. Do you think this kind of discussion shows that the Humanities and the Sciences need each other? Or is it just in this specific case that they can work together?
Student 1: Not just related to A.I. or robots, but also to how companies serve their clients. A lot of the time they have practices that are very morally questionable. So obviously if your work affects humans negatively, that means you don’t have enough Humanities involved in your company..
Student 2: I feel like once two fields have been useful to each other, at one point you won’t be able to separate them completely again. Up until now I feel like they haven’t connected really, but now I think they will need each other for future problems we can’t foresee yet.
Emilie: What goals do you have with all the skills/technique you’ve acquired in computer science?
Student 1: I actually want to do A.I.! I see that many companies in this field can be morally questionable, as I said, and I don’t necessarily like it, but it’s difficult for me to work for someone else.
Emilie: Do you think by making you take Humanities classes you are going to be more aware of these issues when you work in A.I.?
Student 1: Well, certainly it makes me think a little bit more about myself and how society functions.
Student 2: Myself, personally, I want to become a game designer and then eventually if I could get enough money I’d like to clean up some of the game companies’ acts because now they’re really iffy.
Emilie: What do you mean they’re iffy?
Student 2: They underpay people. They sometimes make people work 80 to 100 hours a week when a game is about to come out.
Emilie: But isn’t that what you’ll have to do when you become a game designer?
Student 2: Yeah I know. They do that to appease the stockholders who want their never ending profit increases. But if I get enough money I could buy back 51% of a company’s shares and calm it down, but that’s a lot of money, like in the billions. Still, that’s what I’d like to do if I could do anything.
Emilie: Montreal is growing exponentially with computer science, A.I., game design, with companies like Ubisoft, which really represents Montreal, or Microsoft opening new offices close to Jean-Talon station.
Student 2: Ubisoft specifically I have no idea. I haven’t heard anything recently, but I know they did some sketchy stuff in the past. Microsoft can be very iffy. When there are lawsuits against them they will hire lawyers to make the lawsuit last forever until the people suing run out of money.
Student 1: It’s not related to computer science specifically, though; every company does this.
Emilie: If you got an internship at Microsoft that would be gold for your C.V. right? You could get hired anywhere you want after that. Would you do it despite knowing that it is such a problematic company that treats its employees badly, etc. ?
Student 2: So, first of all, don’t put my name in this just in case, but yeah, probably. Microsoft hires 1 in a 100 people who apply, so regardless of what it does to your resume, it really shows that you know what you’re doing and that’s an accomplishment in itself.
Emilie: It’s an assured career.
Student 1 & 2: For sure.
Emilie: But at the same time corporate or financial lawyers, who are not people of science, they will also defend criminals because there is so much money to be made.
Student 1: Well, it’s hard to find a company that has no ethical issues. Such companies are usually the least successful because they didn’t bypass the system.
Student 2: At the end of the day, most people are gonna end up prioritizing their ownsurvival. I’m not gonna quit my job even if I have to do something unethical, unless it’s really bad.
Student 1: Also, if you want to change how a system works, you can’t be outside of it; you have to be a part of it. Otherwise who’s gonna listen to someone who has no experience in the field/company?
Emilie: So are you guys going to work for Microsoft and destroy it from the inside?
Student 1: Yes exactly.