Teaching ethics in computer science the right way with Georgia Tech’s Charles Isbell – gpgmail


The new fall semester is upon us, and at elite private colleges and universities, it’s hard to find a trendier major than Computer Science. It’s also becoming more common for such institutions to prioritize integrating ethics into their CS studies, so students don’t just learn about how to build software, but whether or not they should build it in the first place. Of course, this begs questions about how much the ethics lessons such prestigious schools are teaching are actually making a positive impression on students.

But at a time when demand for qualified computer scientists is skyrocketing around the world and far exceeds supply, another kind of question might be even more important: Can computer science be transformed from a field largely led by elites into a profession that empowers vastly more working people, and one that trains them in a way that promotes ethics and an awareness of their impact on the world around them?

Enter Charles Isbell of Georgia Tech, a humble and unassuming star of inclusive and ethical computer science. Isbell, a longtime CS professor at Georgia Tech, enters this fall as the new Dean and John P. Imlay Chair of Georgia Tech’s rapidly expanding College of Computing.

Isbell’s role is especially given Georgia Tech’s approximately 9,000 online graduate students in Computer Science. This astronomical number of students in the CS field is the result of a philosophical decision made at the university to create an online CS master’s degree treated as completely equal to on-campus training.

Another counterintuitive philosophical decision made at Georgia Tech — for which Isbell proudly evangelized while speaking at conferences like the MIT Technology Review’s EmTech Next, where I met him in June — is to admit every student who has the potential to earn a degree, rather than making any attempt at “exclusivity” by rejecting worthy candidates. In the coming years all of this may lead, Isbell projected at EmTech Next, to a situation in which up to one in eight of all people in the US who hold a graduate degree in CS will have earned it at Georgia Tech.

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Isbell speaks to Gideon Lichfield, Editor-in-chief of the MIT Technology Review, at its EmTech Next conference in June. Image via MIT Technology Review.

“What they’ve done is pretty remarkable,” said Casey Fiesler, a 3x recent graduate of Georgia Tech and a founding faculty member and CS professor at the University of Colorado’s College of Media, Communication, and Information.

And it’s promising that Fiesler, who has become known in the tech ethics field for her comparative study of curricula and teaching approaches, told me, “ethics can be integrated into online [CS] courses just as easily as it can be into face to face courses.”

Still, it is as daunting as it is impressive to think about how one public school like Georgia Tech might be able to successfully and ethically educate such an enormous percentage of the students in arguably the most influential academic field in the world today. So I was glad to be able to speak to Isbell, an expert on statistical machine learning and artificial intelligence, for this gpgmail series on the ethics of technology.

Our conversation below covers the difference between equality and equity; cultural issues around women in American CS, and what it would look like for ethics to be so integrated into the discussion of computing that students and practitioners wouldn’t even think of it as ethics.

Greg Epstein: Around 1/8 of Computer Science graduate degrees will be delivered by your school in the coming years; you’re thinking inclusively about providing a relatively huge number of opportunities for people who would not otherwise get the opportunity to become computer scientists. How have you achieved that?

Charles Isbell: There’s an old joke about organizations: don’t tell me what your values are, show me your budget and then I’ll tell you what your values are. Because you spend money on the things that you care about.


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Fujitsu Has an Employee Dedicated to Keeping a 1959 Computer Up and Running


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If you’ve ever worked for a company, you’re probably aware that they tend to keep computers running after they should’ve been replaced with something newer, faster, and/or less buggy. Fujitsu Tokki Systems Ltd, however, takes that concept farther than most. The company still has a fully functional computer it installed back in 1959, the FACOM128B. Even more impressive, it still has an employee on staff whose job is to keep the machine in working order.

The FACOM128B is derived from the FACOM100, described as “Japan’s first practical relay-based automatic computer.” The 100, an intermediate predecessor known as the 128A, and the 128B were classified as electromechanical computers based on the same kind of relays that were typically used in telephone switches. Technologically, the FACOM 128B wasn’t particularly cutting-edge even when constructed; vacuum tube designs were already becoming popular by the mid-1950s. Most of the computers that used electromechanical relays were early efforts, like the Harvard Mark I (built in 1944), or one-off machines rather than commercialized designs.

Relay computers did have advantages, however, even in the mid-to-late 1950s. Relay computers were not as fast as vacuum-tube-powered machines, but they were significantly more reliable. Performance also appears to have continued to improve in these designs as well, though finding exact comparison figures for performance on early computers can be difficult. Software, as we understand the term today, barely existed in the 1950s. Not all computers were capable of storing programs, and computers were often custom-built for specific purposes as unique designs, with significant differences in basic parameters.

Wikipedia notes, however, that the Harvard Mark I was capable of “3 additions or subtractions in a second. A multiplication took 6 seconds, a division took 15.3 seconds, and a logarithm or a trigonometric function took over one minute.” The FACOM128B was faster than this, with 5-10 additions or subtractions per second. Division and multiplication were also significantly faster.

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Image and data from the IPSJ Computer Museum

The man responsible for maintaining the FACOM128B, Tadao Hamada, believes that the work he does to keep the system running is a vital part of protecting Japan’s computing heritage and making sure future students can see functional examples of where we came from, not just collections of parts in a box. Hamada has pledged to maintain the system forever. A year ago, the FACOM128B was registered as “Essential Historical Materials for Science and Technology” by the Japanese National Museum of Nature and Science. The goal of the museum, according to Fujitsu, is “to select and preserve materials representing essential results in the development of science and technology, that are important to pass on to future generations, and that have had a remarkable impact on the shape of the Japanese economy, society, culture, and the lifestyles of its citizens.”

A video of the FACOM128B in-action can be seen below:

The FACOM128B was used to design camera lenses and the YS-11, the first and only post-war airliner to be wholly developed and manufactured in Japan until the Mitsubishi SpaceJet. While the YS-11 aircraft was not commercially successful, this wasn’t the result of poor computer modeling; the FACOM128B was considered to be a highly reliable computer. Fujitsu’s decision to keep the machine in working order was itself part of a larger program, begun in 2006. The company writes:

The Fujitsu Relay-type Computer Technology Inheritance Project began activities in October 2006, with the goal of conveying the thoughts and feelings of the technical personnel involved in its development and production to the next generation by continuing to operate the relay-type computer. In this project, the technical personnel involved in the design, production, maintenance, and operation of the computer worked with current technical personnel to keep both the FACOM128B, which is fast approaching its 60th anniversary, and its sister machine, the FACOM138A, in an operational state.

Credit: Fujitsu

Hamada has been working on the electromechanical computer since the beginning of this program. He notes that in the beginning, he had to learn how to translate the diagrams the machine’s original operators had used. Asked why he believes maintaining the machine is so important, he stated: “If the computer does not work, it will become a mere ornament,” said Hamada. “What people feel and what they see are different among different individuals. The difference cannot be identified unless it is kept operational.”

It’s always interesting to revisit what’s been done with older hardware or off-the-wall computer projects, and I can actually see Hamada’s point. Sometimes, looking at older or different technology is a window into how a device functions. Other times, it gives you insight into the minds of the people that built the machine and the problems they were attempting to solve.

One of my favorite off-the-wall projects was the Megaprocessor back in 2016, a giant CPU you could actually see, with each individual block implemented in free-standing panels. Being able to see data being passed across a physical bus is an excellent way to visualize what’s happening inside a CPU core. While maintaining the FACOM128B doesn’t offer that kind of access, it does illustrate how computers worked when we were building them from very different materials and strategies than we use today.

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