The Human Element —Delivered at the International Aaron Swartz Day Hackathon, 2015
The text below is an excerpt from my speech, read by Lisa Rein at the International Aaron Swartz Day Hackathon during the evening of November 7, 2015. The speech can be read in full here: http://www.aaronswartzday.org/chelsea-manning-2015/ and viewed as presented by Lisa here: https://youtu.be/qle9UvJGdYg?t=1h22m59s.
Today, as is obvious in some of the headlines that we see online — we are in a constant technological arms race, and I think that it’s important to realize that we are always only a single breakthrough away from making the methods of network obfuscation and encryption pointless or unusable. While I agree that it’s unlikely, it certainly is well within the realm of possibility that we might wake up tomorrow morning — or, if we’re really honest, tomorrow afternoon for some of us — and find out that some truly brilliant or devious mathematician or mathematicians have solved the Riemann Hypothesis, throwing entire regions of our encryption arsenal into turmoil. Or, we might wake up and find out that a six, eight, or even ten qubit quantum computer with near perfect error correction has been built, effectively accomplishing the same thing.
The point I’m trying to make here is that — and it is sometimes hard for those of us in the tech community to accept — that our technology can only take us so far on its own. Rather, it is the Human element that is so important, and unfortunately very easy to forget.
As most of us are acutely aware, our software can be written to accomplish a task that, in the right hands, solves incredible problems, creates miracles, eliminates boundaries, and saves lives. Think about, for instance, the entertainment provided by streaming videos and video games, the real-time artificial intelligence applications that are used in automated cars, manufacturing plants, and medical equipment, or the so called “big data” platforms being applied for Internet search, marketing, political campaigning, and healthcare.
Yet, that very same software with a few minor tweaks can, in the wrong hands, cause immense problems, create nightmares, raise insurmountable boundaries, and destroy and even end lives. Think about how the same technology used in streaming video, video games, real-time command and controls, and artificial intelligence, can also be used in unmanned aircraft armed with missiles to wreak havoc on barely discernible people hundreds or thousands of miles away. Think about the statistical “nudges” in big data algorithms that create gender, racial, ethnic, gender identity, sexual orientation, religious, political and other biases across large swaths of the online population. Also, think about the intensifying polarization and heavy focus on precision targeting on “swing voters” in the political realm. Real people in real places in real time are affected — sometimes on an immense scale.
Software is only a tool. Technology is only a toolbox. It’s what we create our software for, what we intend to use it for, and who we allow to use it, and how much, that really count.
I now believe that today’s coders and engineers have an extra “hat” that we have to wear on top of the colorful spectrum of hats we already have — namely, the technology ethicist and moralist hat. Whether we’re amateurs or professionals, and despite whether we want to or not, it has now become another duty that we have. I only hope that the majority of us can figure out and fully understand what that is going to entail as we approach the edge of our graphs. In fact, Human lives and the future of Humanity may depend on it.
Thank you for your time everyone, and good luck in your endeavors. I would especially like to thank Lisa Rein for her lovely letter last month inviting me to speak before you all. It was an incredibly warm and heartfelt letter that made my day a little brighter.
Good night, everyone.