Saturday April 11th

Can we Make Science more Human

When I first started learning how to code

  • When I first started learning how to code, I was part of a Slack group with others who were learning how to code. One of the members of the group, who was working in industry, had commented, in response to the reaction from some others on the channel that he “forgot that most of us did not come from a hard sciences background, and that if we did, we would know that Science (or rather, the academic study of Science) is dehumanizing”.
  • My opinion, from what I’ve seen (and having come from both a hard sciences background and a liberal arts background; I was one of those early hybrids!), is that people in Science deflect from answering difficult and uncomfortable questions. They deflect these questions by saying such statements, because it is a method for not having to think or dig deeply into more difficult and challenging questions about the work they do and larger social implications; we’ll just pass it off by saying our field discourages the human element. Gross.
  • I thought about this a lot in the context of some (really late and) bad news about a friend, and some other news about another close relative who passed away a few years ago that I found out had relayed to a stranger that they thought that their life had been a waste. In a timely discussion, this week’s topic for an online book club was on Ethics in Science, particularly with respect to AI. It brought me back to my own internal conflict with a professor, where I discussed that I was driven to do research that I thought was important, and that was able to impact the world in a way that would help others. We disagreed on the extent to which fields we cared about or had a passion for did this.
  • The bigger question of this post is whether, as someone who works in something seen as sort of a “dehumanizing field”, Computer Science, or Science, can be seen as meaningful to the human condition. Can Science give a human life meaning?
  • I have had these discussions with some of my engineering friends, particularly those who moved to tech meccas like Silicon Valley, who after spending around five to ten years, don’t seem to feel like what they do matters, or has meaning anymore. They feel burnt out, and aren’t energized by their work, or feel that what they do isn’t meaningful. The implication is that there isn’t a correlation between what the work promises to do in terms of impact for others, and what it actually delivers. Furthermore, this can be analyzed both on an individual and collectivist level; it is one thing for an individual to feel unfulfilled by one’s work, but quite another for large groups of people to feel like their work lacks meaning or impact in the human world.

To this end

  • This led to my enrolling in a Data Privacy Law course this upcoming semester, which will be on Privacy Policy and Law. Like some of the other machine learning projects I’m involved in, I’m taking part because I see them as holistically being beneficial to my training as a research scientist, and as a human being. I want to know how what I invest in both in terms of research and technology is harmful or could be harmful, and the measures of uncertainty of those assessments, particularly when dealing with data.

Embedded Ethics

  • Years ago I attended a Data Science event in San Jose in which a speaker (I apologize for forgetting the name) spoke about the different tribes of Data Scientists. He spoke about:
    • the Symbolists
    • the Bayesians
    • the Connectionists
    • the Evolutionaries
    • the Analogizers
  • Each group had a preferred tool based on their theory of intelligence and analysis, and I think about how those tools or schools of thought influence the work and opportunity costs of the work they do. There is a currenty a group of persons in deep learning who are working on causal influence in Machine Learning, which is also interesting.

Earlier this year

  • Earlier this year I was invited to speak on a panel for a workshop at this conference that focuses on Fairness and Transparency. I wasn’t able to get my visa and passport together in time to make that a reality, but I’ve been realizing that it’s such an important part of the way I am involved and engaged during my time as a PhD student. It has been one of the things that has given my work and life as a PhD student meaning.
  • We talk about mental health, abuse and bullying in tech, but I think it would be really great if moving forward, companies and teams spoke more about things that gave meaning in tech. I say this also not as a beckoning to the shallow, corporate public relations self-posturing of tech, but rather, I am suggesting the deeper, uncomfortable conversations about what is and isn’t working with technology, why people lose their sense of self in tech, and how people can find meaning in the work they do in tech.
  • I have a programmer friend who talks about wanting to go to art school constantly. He wants to leave his job to go to grad school to study art. He talks about how he thought the feelings to make stuff and be artistic would go away once he started his programming job, but it never does. I think that programming is both an art and a science, and I see it moreso as a tool, so I don’t think his conversations are explicitly about programming. I think his larger battle is with finding himself in his work; it’s something the artists did early on, by taking risks, and whether or not they fail or don’t fail, they come out knowing a bit more about who they are. It’s that growth process that can sometimes elude you if you’ve never struggled, never asked those fundamental questions about who you are or if you really want to be doing the thing you’re doing. It’s Jobs taking time off from Silicon Valley and success to spend time trekking about in India.
  • I saw a bit of this exploration when I first got into tech, because people in tech were (at least, where I was located), suddenly becoming a part of groups I was involved in, such as woodworking shops, metalworking, and drawing and painting classes. They were looking for ways to find beauty or meaning in the world, to make things that were their own, in some existential conversation through craftsmanship. However, the Maker/Hackerspace culture has its own set of issues, which I don’t think are within the scope of this post to discuss.

These questions aren’t new

  • It’s interesting to me that many startups cite individuals such as Jobs but do not speak more about the general culture of the time that made innovation possible. A lot of the tech and art and culture of the time came from a place of people asking themselves who they really were, about the human condition and about the nature of work and meaning. Some examples of these are found in works such as “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. Somewhere along the way, that went out of fashion, even though the progress of technology continued.

I don’t have too much else to say on this

  • I’m lost in the papers of others, under the shadow of others and of a system that seems to tell me again and again that it was not meant for me. What does it mean for an individual who wants to succeed in spite of that? Does that person have to give up something about themselves to make it through such a system? Can they have an impact and change the system in some small way just by being a part of that very system? And how much of themselves must they give up, and is that damage reparable?

I guess that these are questions I can’t answer

  • This post is a question, a discussion, and part of a stream of thoughts strung together.
  • People in Vermont (usually my peers, when they inevitably find my profile, or find out random things about me by accident) ask me all the time why I left California, or Silicon Valley, and this post is the beginning of explaining why. They are puzzled, because most would like to head in the opposite direction; I am an oddity. I left because I thought that by doing a PhD, it could teach me more about who I was. That’s a bigger lesson that is worth more than any amount of money could supply.
  • And that’s it.
Written on April 11, 2020