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Are Engineering and Ethics Orthogonal Concepts? November 18, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Algorithms, Technology and Culture.
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Let me explain through example.  Facebook has a “fake news” problem.  Users sign up for a free account, then post, well, just about anything.  If it violates Facebook’s rules, the platform generally relies on users to report, although Facebook also has teams of editors and is increasingly using machine learning techniques to try to (emphasis on try) be proactive about flagging content.

(Developing machine learning algorithms is a capital expense, after all, while employing people is an operational one.  But I digress.)

But something can be clearly false while not violating Facebook guidelines.  Facebook is in the very early stages of attempting to authenticate the veracity of news (it will take many years, if it can be done at all), but it almost certainly won’t remove that content.  It will be flagged as possibly false, but still available for those who want to consume it.

It used to be that we as a society confined our fake news to outlets such as The Globe or the National Inquirer, tabloid papers typically sold at check-out lines at supermarkets.  Content was mostly about entertainment personalities, and consumption was limited to those that bothered to purchase it.

Now, however, anyone can be a publisher*.  And can publish anything.  Even at reputable news sources, copy editors and fact checkers have gone the way of the dodo bird.

It gets worse.  Now entire companies exist to write and publish fake news and outrageous views online.  Thanks to Google’s ad placement strategy, the more successful ones may actually get paid by Google to do so.

By orthogonal, I don’t mean contradictory.  At the fundamental level, orthogonal means “at right angles to.”  Variables that are orthogonal are statistically independent, in that changes in one don’t at all affect the other.

So let’s translate that to my point here.  Facebook, Google, and the others don’t see this as a societal problem, which is difficult and messy.  Rather they see it entirely as an engineering problem, solvable with the appropriate application of high technology.

At best, it’s both.  At worst, it is entirely a societal problem, to be solved with an appropriate (and messy) application of understanding, negotiation, and compromise.  That’s not Silicon Valley’s strong suit.

So they try to address it with their strength, rather than acknowledging that their societal skills as they exist today are inadequate to the immense task.  I would be happy to wait, if Silicon Valley showed any inclination to acknowledge this and try to develop those skills, but all I hear is crickets chirping.

These are very smart people, certainly smarter than me.  One can hope that age and wisdom will help them recognize and overcome their blind spots.  One can hope, can’t one?

*(Disclaimer:  I mostly publish my opinions on my blog.  When I use a fact, I try to verify it.  However, as I don’t make any money from this blog, I may occasionally cite something I believe to be a fact, but is actually wrong.  I apologize.)

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