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A Hippocratic oath for mathematicians

Cosmik

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#1
Mathematicians, computer engineers and scientists in related fields should take a Hippocratic oath to protect the public from powerful new technologies under development in laboratories and tech firms, a leading researcher has said.

The ethical pledge would commit scientists to think deeply about the possible applications of their work and compel them to pursue only those that, at the least, do no harm to society.
https://www.theguardian.com/science...yle-hippocratic-oath-says-academic-hannah-fry

Ignoring the racist statement she makes further down the article, do we think this is possible? You can't be struck off the register of mathematicians or computer programmers as far as I know. Unless they are thinking of introducing such a thing to enable you to 'practise'? You just kind of drift into computers and/or maths, and it can be just a part of your job. Why not require a Hippocratic oath for everyone who does any job?
 
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dc655321

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#2
Why not require a Hippocratic oath for everyone who does any job?
This would certainly comfort my insides knowing MacDonalds pledges to do no harm... :rolleyes:
FWIW, part of the convocation ceremony for engineers in Canada consists of reciting a similar oath.
Ignoring the racist statement she makes further down the article,
Can't tell if you're being sincere, but assume you're referring to this:
“We’ve got all these tech companies filled with very young, very inexperienced, often white boys who have lived in maths departments and computer science departments,” Fry said.

“They have never been asked to think about ethics, they have never been asked to consider how other people’s perspectives of life might be different to theirs, and ultimately these are the people who are designing the future for all of us.”
This is an (accurate) observation, IME, at least in USA/Canada.
Have a look into the subject of racial bias in machine learning.
 
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Cosmik

Cosmik

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Thread Starter #4
This would certainly comfort my insides knowing MacDonalds pledges to do no harm... :rolleyes:
FWIW, part of the convocation ceremony for engineers in Canada consists of reciting a similar oath.
That's a very interesting point. Do such engineers have any difficulty in working on diesel engines if they know that they will produce toxic fumes, or machines that make plastic bags, for example? Presumably pretty much anything you can make or do will cause some harm even if, on balance it is a good thing. Wind turbines burst the lungs of bats (barotrauma), for example. How does the person who has taken the oath decide where the balance lies?
Can't tell if you're being sincere, but assume you're referring to this:

This is an (accurate) observation, IME, at least in USA/Canada.
Have a look into the subject of racial bias in machine learning.
Perfectly sincere. Bigotry and sweeping generalisations must be pointed out wherever they occur. Effectively if someone says "We know their sort; they're all the same" based on some superficial characteristic that a person can't change, it must be stamped out. There's no need to do it, and it's a bit worrying that it seems to be starting again, even featuring in a national newspaper. I thought we were over that stuff.
 

dc655321

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That's a very interesting point. Do such engineers have any difficulty in working on diesel engines if they know that they will produce toxic fumes, or machines that make plastic bags, for example? Presumably pretty much anything you can make or do will cause some harm even if, on balance it is a good thing. Wind turbines burst the lungs of bats (barotrauma), for example. How does the person who has taken the oath decide where the balance lies?
I did say the oath I mentioned was "similar", not exactly Hippocratic. It was more along the lines of, "Bring the utmost in techniques and training to bear in design challenges you face". I'm sure the exact phrasing is only a Google search away...
Perfectly sincere. Bigotry and sweeping generalisations must be pointed out wherever they occur. Effectively if someone says "We know their sort; they're all the same" based on some superficial characteristic that a person can't change, it must be stamped out. There's no need to do it, and it's a bit worrying that it seems to be starting again, even featuring in a national newspaper. I thought we were over that stuff.
Yeah... that's a conversation better had over proper pints at the pub than on an audio forum (IMO).
 
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Cosmik

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There's something irritating me about the whole story, but I can't quite put my finger on it. Is it that a mathematician thinks she has such special powers that she thinks they must not be misused? Is it that she thinks mathematicians are specially qualified to determine good from bad? Is she saying that mathematicians are so powerful they can refuse to do unethical work?

I think I have it: it's that she's almost equating machine learning with the atomic bomb. And it just isn't. Machine learning isn't going to destroy humanity, but the politicians and industrialists who believe in it, and use it, may cause us big problems. But they were always going to do that anyway.
 

Blumlein 88

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It was back in the 1970s, but the engineering school I attended required you in the sophomore year to take a class on ethics of engineering, and technology. The professor was excellent as was the course. Almost everything we were taught or forced to consider and wrestle with came to be important over the next 20 years though at the time much of it was seemingly too remote to be concerned with.

One has to be careful of revisionist thinking. Much too often now people are blamed as if guilty of some past decision when it wasn't wrong at all in the context of the times. Someone mentioned McDonalds. Okay, they've had a large and probably negative impact on the diets and health of many in the USA and elsewhere. Their decisions in packaging and other areas have out-sized impacts environmentally. But in the 1940's and 50's there were lots of little burger shops etc. In those days nearly all meals were at home and eating at snack joints was just a now and again experience. McD's simply franchised it and did it better than anyone while growing to amazing size. In the beginning it was a snack joint (not a populaces main source of food intake), and wanted to please customers as a consistent fun snack joint. Was someone who might be working for them then supposed to look at the ethics of nutrient quality of their food and refuse to work for them? Are we obligated to never have non-optimum anything just for fun and convenience? Like hotdogs at the park. My answer is don't be ridiculous. The oath for mathematicians is for many reasons incredibly ridiculous.
 

Ron Texas

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McDonalds has switched from frying potatoes in beef suet to vegetable fat and again to vegetable oil without trans fatty acids. That doesn't look like a bad actor to me. Nobody is forced to eat there.
 

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#10
Hippocratic oath?. It does not produce any measurable effect on doctors, let alone in scientists.
 

Cortes

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McDonalds has switched from frying potatoes in beef suet to vegetable fat and again to vegetable oil without trans fatty acids. That doesn't look like a bad actor to me. Nobody is forced to eat there.
McDonalds has made more good to the world than UN. Anyone that travels to non-easy countries knows that.
 

SIY

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This is an (accurate) observation, IME, at least in USA/Canada.
Have a look into the subject of racial bias in machine learning.
My experience is quite different. Most of the math groups and software groups I've visited and worked with are heavily "over-represented" with people from India and China. Which bothers me not even a little bit; I see absolutely no reason to GAF about the ethnicity distribution.
 

JJB70

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My experience is quite different. Most of the math groups and software groups I've visited and worked with are heavily "over-represented" with people from India and China. Which bothers me not even a little bit; I see absolutely no reason to GAF about the ethnicity distribution.
Thanks for pointing this out, this is very much my experience of engineering. I used to be an industrial supervisor for MSC students, attend a few academic conferences and worked for a company that sponsored a lot of of R&D as well as funding scholarships and bursaries and my experience was and is that engineering is ethnically diverse with Asian people very well represented. Not that ethnicity or gender is relevant to engineering capability or competence.
Which begs the question of whether the writer of this article has only encountered places where most people there is young and white or whether she subverted that in order to make a political point?
There is a delicious irony for anyone familiar with the UK press as the Guardian usually the first to take offence at silly statements like this if published elsewhere.
 

Blumlein 88

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Thanks for pointing this out, this is very much my experience of engineering. I used to be an industrial supervisor for MSC students, attend a few academic conferences and worked for a company that sponsored a lot of of R&D as well as funding scholarships and bursaries and my experience was and is that engineering is ethnically diverse with Asian people very well represented. Not that ethnicity or gender is relevant to engineering capability or competence.
Which begs the question of whether the writer of this article has only encountered places where most people there is young and white or whether she subverted that in order to make a political point?
There is a delicious irony for anyone familiar with the UK press as the Guardian usually the first to take offence at silly statements like this if published elsewhere.
Pretty clear to me it was a political point. Making this as accurate as the remainder of the article. And what if it were all white guys, are we supposed to turn down the results if they all come from the wrong kind of people ?
 

digicidal

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#16
I think the real problem with the idea is that (as others have stated) scientific disciplines are often judged on the ethics of application - which in all but a very few cases - they had nothing to do with at all. Breakthroughs in all fields can create horrible weapons or cure horrible diseases... in many cases built upon the same research and technologies.

There are many fields of research that are funded by governments exclusively for military applications. Although that is an unfortunate reality - without that funding, many beneficial breakthroughs might otherwise be significantly delayed or lost entirely.

When human beings are involved... there's always good and bad aspects to almost everything we touch (although I think it skews a little more toward the bad unfortunately). As to the rest of it... I wonder if we will ever get to the point where the level of melanin in our skin, or the subtle differences in our facial features, will be recognized as utterly meaningless attributes in comparison to how we act? Probably never, but here's hoping. :)
 
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Cosmik

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Thread Starter #17
I wonder what people think to this:
1566028791031.png

It's the blueprint of an anti-personnel mine. Somehow, in conscience terms, it's worse for the engineer who designs it than a gun or a missile don't you think?
 
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Cosmik

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I wonder if we will ever get to the point where the level of melanin in our skin, or the subtle differences in our facial features, will be recognized as utterly meaningless attributes in comparison to how we act? Probably never, but here's hoping. :)
That used to be the aim I think, but when it was close to being achieved the goalposts were moved. Or maybe it was never the aim but naive people like us thought it was.

The person in that article thinks she's being virtuous when she makes her supposedly 'inverted' racist comment, but she's not. She's maintaining the idea that skin colour is a proxy for character. What she could have said was what she really meant: the people designing AI systems may come disproportionately from a narrow section of society and maybe they were educated in the same sorts of schools, in the same sorts of subjects. Maybe she's qualified to say that, or maybe she isn't. People could at least agree or disagree on that without feeling it would be toxic to do so. The (faux) virtue signalling skin colour thing is just an extra layer of 'proxy' i.e. inaccuracy, whereby a person who didn't go to those schools and study those subjects but who happens to have the 'wrong' skin colour is still lumped into her generalisation.
 
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Cosmik

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Thread Starter #19
An article that couldn't be more relevant to this discussion:
For the last two years, Detroit police have been quietly utilizing controversial and unreliable facial recognition technology to make arrests in the city.
The news, revealed in May in a Georgetown University report , has shocked many Detroiters and sparked a public debate in the city that is still raging and mirrors similar battles playing out elsewhere in America and across the world. Among other issues, critics in the majority-black city point out that flawed facial recognition software misidentifies people of color and women at much higher rates.
https://www.theguardian.com/us-news...etly-using-facial-recognition-to-make-arrests
 

PierreV

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The person in that article thinks she's being virtuous when she makes her supposedly 'inverted' racist comment, but she's not. She's maintaining the idea that skin colour is a proxy for character. What she could have said was what she really meant: the people designing AI systems may come disproportionately from a narrow section of society and maybe they were educated in the same sorts of schools, in the same sorts of subjects.
On the whole, I tend to agree with you and find your reformulation indeed better. That being said, I think we should stop focusing on dissecting single sentences extracted from short interviews or posts. That is too "Svart Hittian". If we go down that road, we'll soon be discussing "how epistemological bias has recently shaped the gold moral standard we use to evaluate AI bias" by quoting Hume, Kant and Popper (an all-white boys gang btw) ;)
 
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