Field of Science

Some thoughts on "broader impact" statements for scientific papers

I know that conferences like NeurIPS (formerly called NIPS) have asked for statements about ethical and "broader impact" to accompany papers submitted to them. In principle I am all for this since it's always good for scientists to think about the social implications of the work. I also read the details of the requirements and they aren't draconian, especially for highly theoretical papers whose broader impact is far from clear.

But from a fundamental philosophical viewpoint I still don't think this is useful. My problem is not with the morality of predicting impact but with the lack of utility. The history of science and technology show that it is impossible to predict broader impact. When Maxwell published his electromagnetic equations he could have scarcely imagined the social and political repercussions electrical power generation would have. When Einstein published his general theory of relativity, he could have scarcely imagined the broader impact it would have on space exploration and GPS, both in war and peace. Perhaps most notably, nobody could have predicted the broader impacts of the discovery of the proton or the discovery of DNA as the genetic material. I do not see how James Chadwick or Oswald Avery could have submitted broader impact statements with their papers; anything interesting they might have had to say would probably have been untrue a few years later, and anything they would have admitted would probably have turned out to be important.
My biggest problem is not that broader impact statements will put more of a burden on already-overworked researchers, or that they might inflame all kinds of radical social agendas, or that they might bias conferences against very good technical papers which struggle to find broad impact, or that they might stifle lines of research which are considered to be dangerous or biased. All these problems are real and should be acknowledged. But the real problem simply is that whatever points these statements would make would almost certainly turn out to be wrong because of the fundamental unpredictability and rapid progress of technology. And they would then only cause confusion by sending people down a rabbit hole, one in which the rabbit not only does not exist but is likely to be a whole other creature. And this will be the case with all new technologies like AI and CRISPR.

The other problem with broader statements is what to do with them even if they are accurate, because accurate and actionable are two different things. Facial recognition software is an obvious example. It can be used to identify terrorists or bad guys but it can also be used to identify dissidents and put them into jail. So if I submit a broader statement with my facial recognition paper and point out these facts, now what? Would this kind of research be banned? That would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The fact is that science and technology are always dual use, and it is impossible to separate their good from their bad uses except as a matter of social choice after the fact. I am not saying that pointing out this dual use is a bad thing, but I am concerned that doing so might lead to stifling good research for fear that it may be put to bad ends.
So what is the remedy? Except for obvious cases, I would say that science and technology should be allowed to play out the way they have played out since the time of Francis Bacon and the Royal Society, as open areas of inquiry with no moral judgements being made beforehand. In that sense science has always put a severe burden on society and has asked for a tough bargain in return. It says, "If you want me to be useful, don't put me in a straitjacket and try to predict how I will work out. Instead give me the unfettered freedom of discovery, and then accept both the benefits and the risks that come with this freedom." This is the way science has always worked. Personally I believe that we have done an excellent jobs maximizing its benefits and minimizing its risks, and I do not see why it will be different with any new technology including machine learning. Let machine learning run unfettered, and while we should be mindful of its broader impact, predicting it will be as futile as damming the ocean.

Book Review: "His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life" by Jonathan Alter

I first saw Jimmy Carter with a few other students during my first year as a graduate student at Emory University where he remains a visiting professor - I still remember the then 81-year-old briskly striding in with his signature broad, toothy smile and the energy of a man half his age. The amusing thing was that when he opened up the floor to any question that we wanted to ask him, the first question someone asked right away was whether LBJ was responsible for JFK's assassination. Without batting an eyelid Carter said no and moved on.

Now I am finishing Jonathan Alter's comprehensive biography of Carter and it's a revelation. The book's main goal is to show that Jimmy Carter is a much more complex human being and president than what people believe, and it succeeds exceedingly well in this goal. Carter was a highly intelligent, immensely hard working and, most importantly, a good man in the wrong job. But even then, the things he accomplished were very substantial. Most important were his two signature foreign policy achievements - giving the Panama Canal back to Panama, and brokering a peace between Israel and Egypt which has lasted up to to the present day. The Camp David Accords in particular showed a commitment over thirteen days that is without precedent before or since; Carter simply refused to give up, even when Begin and Sadat were on the verge of going home multiple times. The other huge achievement - albeit one that now seems like a mixed blessing - was to normalize relations with China. He also campaigned for human rights at a time when it wasn't fashionable for American presidents to do so, abandoning American presidents' traditional cozy relationship with anti-communist dictatorships.
There are also other, more minor achievements that are now forgotten - appointing more liberal federal judges (even more than Trump), deregulating the airline industry, appointing more African-Americans to important government positions than many of his predecessors, restoring a sense of decency and common sense to the White House after the tumultuous years of Vietnam and lackluster years of Ford, being the first Democratic president to woo evangelicals (the last before they turned Republican) and popularizing alternative energy and climate change at a time when few people cared about it. There's no doubt that the binary classification of Carter as "failed president, great ex-president" is flawed and reality is more complex.
The book is also fabulous at exploring Carter's childhood and background in rural Georgia as a farmer and his education in nuclear engineering at Annapolis. Carter grew up as the son of a farmer and general store owner, Earl Carter, who competed with his son in daily tasks and sports and was a fair if harsh father. Carter's mother Lillian who lived to see her son became president was quite liberal for her time, and astonishingly joined the Peace Corps and went to India for a few months for public service in her sixties. Alter does not shirk from criticizing Carter's poor record on civil rights before he became president (at one point he was friendly with George Wallace). Carter was a product of his time and grew up in the segregated Deep South after all, but this does not excuse his reluctance to take a stand even in matters like school desegregation. Of course, the defining relationship that Carter has had is with his wife Rosalynn who he married when he was twenty-one and she was nineteen; they have been married for more than seventy-five years now. Rosalynn has been a commanding presence in his life, and he often sought advice from her along with his other advisors during the most crucial moments of his presidency.
Carter's main problem was that he was dour, practical and business-like and almost completely lacked the warmth, optimism and PR skills that are necessary for political leaders to win over not just minds but hearts. He was the strict father who wants to lecture his children about what's best for them. His grim fireside chats about consumption and self-indulgence, while sensible, did not go down well with the American people.
In addition, while he did a good job during his first two years, Carter was completely overtaken by global events during his second two, most notably the Iranian Revolution, Soviet aggression and the oil crisis that hiked up oil prices. The book does a good job showing that while Carter was not responsible for these events, he was as clueless in understanding the situation in Iran as anyone else.

There is an excellent account of the Iranian Hostage crisis in Alter's biography which includes many details that I did not know. It seems like a real tragedy since it was a comedy of errors in some sense, albeit one which the US had yoked itself with since installing the Shah of Iran in a coup in 1953 (there is an excellent account of how Mohammed Mosaddegh's democratic government was toppled in Stephen Kinzer's book "All the Shah's Men"). The hostage crisis was essentially triggered by the Shah being allowed into the US for medical treatment. He had fled from Iran after the Ayatollah had been reinstalled and flown in from exile in France.
The Shah's case was engineered by a lobby prominently led among others by Kissinger - the man's villainy continued unabated even after leaving the Nixon administration. He and his cabal greatly exaggerated the Shah's medical condition and forced Carter to admit him into the US on humanitarian grounds; he was in Mexico, and the Kissinger faction wrongly made the case that Mexican hospitals weren't equipped to diagnose and treat him. This was the last straw since it told the Iranians that the US was about to embark on another 1953-like adventure. This wasn't true, but at this point cooler heads weren't prevailing.
Also complicit in the disaster was Carter's hawkish national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, an early neoconservative. A dissenter was secretary of state Cyrus Vance who strenuously advised against letting the Shah in, having a good idea of how perilous the situation in Iran was. As it turned out, Carter was blindsided and ignorant of the internal situation in Iran and ended up letting the Shah in (before hurriedly getting him out again).
The irony was that the die had been cast by Carter's predecessors, especially Eisenhower and Nixon, and Carter himself had very little interest in adventurism abroad, but the Shah was America's burden to bear, and Carter's actions were conflated with previous ones by the Iranians. Once the hostages were taken Carter's hands were tied for months, his approval ratings plummeted and the way was paved for Reagan (and Ben Affleck and his team in 'Argo').
I always feel that the fractured relations between the US and Iran constitute one of the great international tragedies of the 20th and early 21st centuries. Both countries have a rich heritage and have so much to offer each other. If the US had not completely thrown in their lot with Saudi Arabia and Israel and instead been friends with Iran, we would have had a powerful ally against Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East. As it happened, the current Iranian regime is certainly nothing to praise and funds terrorist groups like Hezbollah. But it's important to note that it was largely US actions in the 1950s that led to the present state of affairs.
In retrospect, it appears obvious how someone like Reagan who was just fundamentally better at being a people pleaser and projected sunny optimism could defeat Carter. Fortunately Carter's career was just beginning at the end of his presidency, and in the next three decades he did very significant human rights work, including eradicating guinea worm from Africa and working on Habitat for Humanity, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in the process and becoming a far more deserving recipient than most others who got the prize. Now 97, he still teaches Sunday School in Plains, GA. What we need today is the pragmatism and intelligence of Jimmy Carter and the optimism of Ronald Reagan.
A fantastic book, well worth its almost 800 pages, and likely the definitive biography of a remarkable man for many years to come.