The Daily Illini

Engineering bad politics

By Joseph Dillier, Columnist

In Stanley Kubrick’s classic film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” two scientists are traveling to Jupiter onboard a spaceship piloted by HAL 9000, a sentient supercomputer with full artificial intelligence. As the film progresses, the utopian idea of HAL’s technological perfection dissipates as he begins making mistakes that endanger the crew. While attempting to shut down HAL and save the ship, HAL tries to kill the scientists. HAL serves as a symbol of the dangers of technological progress. To add to this symbolism, HAL gets his own scene explaining that he was made here at the University.

Every year our STEM departments get high rankings and we send graduates to industry-leading firms. However, upon reaching the top, many of our graduates are not prepared for the wider ethical concerns of the technology they hold.

Take for instance one of our most successful alumni, tech billionaire Robert Mercer who received his computer science doctorate here. Later, he was hired at Renaissance Technologies, a multibillion-dollar hedge fund, and eventually became its CEO. His impressive career trajectory is mired, however, by his biddings as a proverbial bog monster in the swampy world of political financing.

Mr. Mercer began receiving public scrutiny when it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica, the company he cofounded, had acquired the personal data of more than 50 million Facebook users without their knowledge and then ran “psychographic modeling techniques” to help Ted Cruz win a senate race.

His influence in politics did not stop there. After Cruz dropped out, Mr. Mercer switched his support to the Trump campaign; he was crucial to getting Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway aboard the Trump train. Their rise was being funded by Mercer’s offshore shell companies in Bermuda as revealed in the Paradise Papers last year which were set up for tax evasion and political financing. While Mercer is clearly very good at computer science, his tax evasion and support of Cambridge shows a lack of understanding for basic ethical concerns.

A man who is rarely identified as a University graduate is James Damore better known as “the Google memo guy.” Whether you agree with his firing or not is a different debate about ethics in the tech industry entirely.

The science of Damore’s memo is complicated, but he often feigns objectivity in the complicated realm of gender dynamics. The best response to the memo in my opinion is this short rebuttal from The Economist. There are many points in the memo that are scientifically questionable, but ultimately it is not my area of expertise.

What is more important, however, is, knowingly or not, Damore was co-opted by the alt-right after his firing. In retaliation he went on Stefan Molyneux’s show who has said that Africa was better off under colonialism and blames women for many of society’s evils. To get a better understanding of how his strange pathology influences his politics he once tweeted: “Was there such a thing as the friend zone before the existence of the welfare state?

Damore’s incident could have been an opportunity to discuss ethics in tech. Instead his tactless approach of sending the memo en masse on Google’s server and, then pairing with far-right ideologues, ruined this chance.

Another pair of University alumni who are at the cross-section of politics and tech are Jawed Karim and Steve Chen, two of the co-founders of YouTube. While neither Karim or Chen work at YouTube these days, their company is going through an ethical dilemma. The site has a become a breeding ground for all sorts of political ideologies: ISIL recruiting videos, radical leftists and white nationalists. In an attempt to crackdown on these channels, it has decided to take away ad revenue, age-restrict content and sometimes outright censor videos.

This prompted millionaire Dennis Prager, founder of PragerU, a controversial conservative YouTube channel, to sue YouTube on the grounds that his First Amendment rights were violated. He may have a point. If a person is censored on websites like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, their contribution to the marketplace of ideas has taken a big hit. When these companies censor content it is an effort to avoid bad press and not in the public interest of ethical free speech.

Companies like YouTube simply were made to share content. They are not prepared to handle their inadvertent role in the free speech debate. Their employees are are trained in coding and data, not constitutional law and ethics.

One of the dangers of a pure STEM education is that some graduates will never gain an understanding of the ethical, political and social implications of the technology they create. A STEM education teaches you how to build the future, but not what to do with it. Whether this means more liberal arts gen-eds or a required engineering ethics class, the prescription is unclear. Either way, ethics need to be instilled in STEM education here while the tech leaders of tomorrow are still young.

Otherwise the future will be filled with HAL 9000s and Robert Mercer wannabes.

Joseph is a junior in LAS.

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