Rensselaer for Ethics in Science, Engineering, and Technology

Wednesday, March 4, 2:00 PM in Folsom Library Conference Room (2nd-floor)

Topics

  • Last meeting:

    • Privacy concerns in messaging apps, browsers, and operating systems
    • Incentive structures that make mainstream apps and software likely to have predatory data harvesting
    • Potential for different incentive systems to create less predatory systems like Firefox, Signal, Linux, etc.
    • Getting people to care about privacy and devote time and energy to protecting themselves
    • The onus this puts on individuals when it's up to the structures to represent the best interest of people
    • The speculative bubble around selling data
    • Fighting nihilism about the futility of fighting against large structures that harvest data
    • Is the problem technology? Capitalism? How technology props up capitalism and vice versa?
    • What it means to be autonomous. Can we be autonomous in a world dependent on manipulative tech?
  • This meeting:

    • What does the pace of automation look like? Past experts predicted that nearly all labor would be automated by now and current experts have made similar predictions for 2030, 2050, etc. What's a more realistic way of looking at automation?
    • What kind of jobs will be impacted? Manual labor comes to mind but what about creative and professional work? Wouldn't an automated doctor with access to millions of medical records that it can scan be better than a human doctor? Wouldn't a neural network that can go through millions of generations of songs produce better music?
    • What will happen to manual labor? The transportation industry is the second largest employer in the United States. Self-driving cars could affect millions of drivers.
    • What about office work? Will a larger proportion of office workers' time be spent training programs to do their jobs?
    • What would the economy look like if most American citizens are unemployable? How do we need to change our attitudes and societal structures to accommodate mass unemployment?
    • Who benefits from automation? The workers or the owners?
    • What role does technology play in automation versus the economic system propelling automation?

#meetings

(among other things)

A proposed New York State Senate Bill S7645 would give Public Safety officers “Officer of Peace” status. Peace officer status grants the power to conduct warrantless searches and arrests, carry weapons, and use deadly force. While many other large colleges have police forces with these abilities and RPI officers already had most of these abilities, RPI spent at least $22,000 lobbying for the bill. This makes it a deliberate step towards the over-securitization of the campus.

According to an anonymous source in the Rensselaer Union Student Senate, Rensselaer has entered a contract with Milestone Systems, a surveillance camera and video management retailer. While the company does not advertise facial recognition software, it supports 49 plugins that include facial recognition.

Beyond privacy concerns, these developments will determine what kind of college RPI becomes. Despite being private, RPI has a real connection to the surrounding community and benefits from it. Public events create diverse crowds of RPI students, faculty, staff, Troy residents, and students from neighboring schools. Public buildings allow visitors to roam the campus and give prospective students a sense of what attending RPI may be like. Do we want to feel like we're being watched? Do we want to be surrounded by armed Public Safety officers? Do we want to feel like intruders at our own school? Do we want our visitors and guests to feel unwelcome?

Resources

New York State Senate Bill S7645

Senate Survey about the bill

Facial recognition fact sheet

Presentation with student concerns about the bill

Facilities and Services Committee FAQ on the bill

Times Union article on the bill

Poly article on RPI's lobbying effort to get the bill

Op-Ed on these developments

#announcements

Wednesday, February 26, 2:00 PM, Fischbach Seminar Room (Folsom Library 2nd-floor)

Topics:

  • Last meeting:
    • Technology as an inherently conservative entity that preserves the status quo and the power of those that can control it.
    • The deep roots STEM and STEM departments have in the military-industrial complex and the inability to find research not connected in any way to the military.
    • Dialogue between students and professors about ethics in STEM and also a broader focus that should be in all classes not just one class to think about it.
    • Billionaires cannot and will not save the world
  • This meeting:
    • Nowhere to Hide: Preserving privacy while under constant surveillance. Lecture by Rylan O'Connell, RESET member and undergraduate Computer Science student.
    • Q&A and group discussion to follow.

#meetings

Wednesday, February 19, 2:00 PM, DCC 236

Topics:

  • Last meeting:
    • Bridging the gap between humanities and STEM, opening up communication and understanding.
    • Challenging ingrained biases in STEM departments and fields.
    • Reasons for lopsided demographics in STEM fields and ways of mitigating it.
    • Solidarity and unionization as the most effective tools for bringing about change.
  • This meeting:
    • The Politics of Vision: How computer vision can shape what we see and how we see it. Lecture by Audrey Beard, Computer Science Ph.D. student.
    • Q&A and group discussion to follow.
    • PLEASE NOTE THE ROOM CHANGE TO DCC 236

#meetings

Wednesday, February 12, 2:00 PM, Fischbach Seminar Room, Folsom Library (2nd floor)

Topics:

  • Last meeting:
    • Privacy vs. convenience: Is it actually a trade-off or do we just think it is
    • Loss of privacy as a consequence of corporate structures
    • What is a reasonable privacy policy?
    • Should we expect everyone to read the terms of service and be a “fully informed consumer”. Does this shift the onus to the individual, not the company
    • Why should people care about privacy?
    • People shouldn't have to justify caring about privacy
    • People might not always have “nothing to hide”
    • Lack of privacy is fine for those who benefit from the status quo but what about those who don't.
    • Availability v. accessibility
    • Collection –> Prediction –> Manipulation –> Collection
  • This meeting:
    • Guest lecture by Professor Brian Callahan from the ITWS department on the history of science and technology. Science and tech's relationship with power structures.
    • Q&A and group discussion to follow.

#meetings

Wednesday, February 5, 2:00 PM, Fischbach Seminar Room, Folsom Library (2nd floor)

Topics:

  • Last meeting:
    • Individual versus collective action. How are gut reaction is “what can I do?” when it should be “what can we do?”
    • Avoiding nihilism about the geopolitical Leviathan of war and capitalism
    • How our education shaped our worldview and how we solve problems
    • The problems of the divide-and-conquer strategy of problem-solving. How it leaves out important underlying connections.
    • Things to do on campus (see #organizing in the Discord for updates)
  • This meeting:
    • The Internet of Things:
      • Practically every modern device communicates in some way to the manufacturer company and sends information about its user. The company can do almost anything it wants with this information.
    • Loss of privacy:
      • The emergence of surveillance capitalism with Google’s AdWords.
      • Companies joining in the surveillance bandwagon and selling user information to third parties or using it to tailor specific advertisements.
      • Is the trade-off between privacy and being shown relevant ads legitimate? Would we rather be shown no ads at all? If we have to have ads, would we rather they be tailored to us?
    • Predictive algorithms:
      • Along with using the information to tailor ads, companies use it to predict our behavior and maximize user engagements and, ergo, profits.
      • Algorithms are getting scarily good at predicting human behavior. This means we have lost not only present privacy but future privacy.

Articles for discussion

Further reading

#meetings

Wednesday, January 29, 2:00 PM, Fischbach Seminar Room, Folsom Library (2nd floor)

Topics:

  • Last meeting:

    • The nature of new media versus old. Is social media completely unprecedented?
    • Yes and no. The amount of information collected by social media platforms that maximize use-time is different as well as the lack of filter.
    • Digital communication being bad at conveying sentiment.
    • Individual experience with social media versus average.
    • Social media letting us indulge our desire to be angry at strangers.
    • Utility of social media versus the amount of information they take from us.
    • Different business models of social media (ad-based, subscription, etc.)
    • “Politics” of social media: centralized, free-for-all, community-based
    • Nazi mastodons
    • Furries (still don't know what they are and I'M NOT LOOKING IT UP)
    • Giving extremists a platform. Free speech versus safety concerns. Freedom means freedom to express but also freedom from harm.
  • This meeting:

    • The historical relationship of science, technology, and the military. What were the motives of this relationship? How is it sustained? Who benefits?
    • The technological innovations produced by military spending. Does the benefit of useful military innovation outweigh the cost of destructive innovation? Is it fair that publicly funded innovation is now in the private sector? (e.g., computers, the internet, AI)
    • Autonomous military technology. Will the next war be fought remotely? What will engineers' and programmers' role in this be?
    • The police's adoption of high-tech surveillance and weaponry. The militarization of the police. What is the STEM industry's role in this relationship and the media's role in manufacturing public support for it?

Articles for discussion

Further reading

Wednesday, January 22, 2:00 PM in the 2nd-floor Folsom Library Conference Room

Topics:

  • Last meeting:

    • Defined what we mean by technology and ethics.
    • Acknowledged how hard it is to define technology and ethics.
    • Acknowledged how many different lenses we can look at a social issue involving technology: through class, race, gender, power, etc.
    • How tech companies become more entrenched into the current social, political, and economic systems and begin to reflect them and their power imbalances.
    • How tech companies profit from fear.
    • Tech industry's relationship with the military.
    • We are all part of THE SYSTEM.
    • Ways RESET can grow and things we can do.
    • In the end, we decided to divide the efforts of the group into two:
      • 1. Large public accessible conversations on social issues in technology. Similar to today's meeting but hopefully more accessible. We did a bad job at seating those who talk a lot away from those who talk a little and it created an imbalance. We want everyone to feel comfortable participating.
      • 2. A smaller concerted activist effort for people who want to be more involved. This will involve more intense conversations, information campaigns, rallies, and protests.
  • This meeting:

    • Technology and social media's effect on our mental health and social norms.
    • Are we more isolated or connected (or both) because of technology?
    • Heavy users of social media report feeling more lonely, anxious, and depressed. Why is this? Who’s responsible: the user or the platform?
    • Technology usually minimizes the amount of face-to-face (or even voice-to-voice) interaction (e.g., self-checkouts, service apps). Is this making us afraid of each other? Is this making it harder to learn social norms and etiquette? (e.g., would a child who grew up with Siri and Alexa and never had to be polite to these AIs be polite to people to a food server?)
    • Technology’s effect on our attention span. (e.g. The first Lincoln-Douglas debate lasted 7 hours. Can we imagine anyone paying attention to two people talking for 7 hours? Most people don’t watch the presidential debates that last 2 hours.)
    • Conversely, technology allows us to communicate worldwide, have better access to mental health resources, and access near-infinite amounts of art and literature. How do we utilize this without succumbing to the problems highlighted above?

Articles for discussion

Further reading

#meetings

Wednesday, January 15, 2:00 PM in Fischbach Seminar Room, Folsom Library

Topics:

  • Introduction
    • What RESET is
    • What we discuss
    • What our goals are
    • What do we mean by technology? Ethics?
    • What is our responsibility, as future tech professionals, to think critically about ethical questions in STEM?
  • Goals for the semester:
    • Weekly meetings
    • Student-run lectures
    • Documentary screenings
    • Social media
    • Outreach to other like-minded organizations on campus
  • Discussion of potential topics for future meetings:
    • Old topics to revisit: Algorithmic bias, climate change, genetic engineering, privacy/security
    • New topics: IoT security, Tech workers' movements, virtual medicine/therapy, academia's relationship with the military

#meetings

Wed, December 11, 2:30 PM in Folsom Libary Rm. 353B

Topics:

  • Last meeting:

    • London banning Uber
    • The implications of the “gig economy” on established employers w salaries and benefits
    • The near impossibility for Uber drivers or any contractors to form a legally-protected union
    • How the logic of capitalism can corrupt potential social goods. E.g., AirBnB had the potential to reduce waste by getting occupants for unoccupied realty but instead, landlords started evicting tenants because AirBnB is more profitable than rent
    • The video game industry and virtual reality subsuming real reality
    • Black Mirror is required viewing for next semester's RESET meetings
    • The nature of addiction. How addiction is viewed and categorized based on socioeconomic status. Socially productive ways of handling addiction (e.g., free drugs and needles to prevent people from endangering themselves)
  • This meeting:

    • What are some initiatives RESET can take on at RPI? Potentially: guest speakers, public forums, pushing for curriculum change (e.g., machine learning classes having a unit on algorithmic bias), alternative career fair.
    • How can RESET coordinate with other student groups across the country?
      • Would allow coordination of strikes, petitions, boycotts similiar to the Palantir protests across 16 colleges.
      • Create a national push for curriculum change in STEM education.
      • Allow students from different colleges to work together on issues of shared interest (e.g., women in STEM, cybersecurity, genetic technology)
      • Plan local or national meetups and events.
      • Unify the voice of students in STEM and future STEM workers, researchers, policy-makers.
    • Known groups or people from other colleges that have similar objectives or values with RESET that may be interested in an intercollegiate group.

#meetings

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