A Call to Action

Digital technologies for learning, health, politics, and commerce have enriched the world.  Digital heroes like Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Batya Friedman, Alan Kay, JCR Licklider, and Joe Weizenbaum have blazed trails.  Yet there is trouble.  We depend upon software that nobody totally understands. We are vulnerable to cyberterrorism.  Privacy is overrun by surveillance capitalism. Totalitarian control advances.  Daily internet news matching our beliefs makes it hard to tell true from false. People are addicted to devices. Jobs disappear without social safety nets. Digital leviathans threaten to control all commerce. Our values are threatened. 

There are risks of premature use of AI in domains such as health, criminal justice, senior care, and warfare. Much current AI is unreliable, without common sense, deceptive in hiding that it’s an algorithm, unable to explain decisions, unjust, neither accountable nor responsible, and untrustworthy.  

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Working at home during and after COVID

My blog post of February 11 shared the account of four people who, despite COVID, have preserved and in some cases enhanced family connections and communication through the use of teleconferencing technologies. This essay will look at the present and future of distance collaboration for work. 

It has not been easy, especially for couples who both have jobs and who have school-age children at home. There have been severe stresses in maintaining concentration and balancing work time; periods helping children with schoolwork; and time for chores, exercise, play, and being alone. 

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Senior Care Homes Aren’t Ready for the Second Wave

Contributed by Ron Baecker and Gary Feldman

Ron Baecker is an Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at the University of Toronto and author of Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives (OUP, 2019). Gary Feldman, MD, FAAP, FABMG, is a retired physician who was the Public Health Officer of Ventura County and Riverside County in California for 14 years. They are two of the co-authors of The COVID-19 Solutions Guide.

The COVID-19 Solutions Guide, published in mid-June, described the effects of the first wave of the virus on senior care in North America as follows:

As of early June, over one-third of the known COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have been to residents and staff living and working in nursing and long-term care homes. As of early May, a shocking 82% of the known virus deaths in Canada have been to those in long-term care. A Canadian Forces report commissioned by the province on Ontario, released in late May, reported numerous incidents of poor infection control, residents being denied food or being fed improperly, residents being treated roughly, and staffing problems. A flurry of lawsuits is expected. In Ontario, a $50 million suit was filed on May 1, 2020, alleging that one of Canada’s largest operators of senior residences and long-term care facilities lacked “proper sanitation protocols and adequate testing to prevent the spread of COVID-19”. In the United States, nursing homes have sought emergency protection from lawsuits alleging improper care.”

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Can the internet help people live through a pandemic?

Contributed by Ronald Baecker and Judith Langer.

Ron is an an Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at the University of Toronto, co-author of The COVID-19 Solutions Guide and author of Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives (OUP, 2019).

Judith is the Vincent O’Leary Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Albany, State University of New York and co-author of The COVID-19 Solutions Guide.

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Ethics throughout a Computer Science curriculum

Every Computer Science student should get significant exposure to the social, political, legal, and ethical issues raised by the accelerating progress in the development and use of digital technologies.

The standard approach is to offer one undergraduate course, typically called Computers and Society or Computer Ethics.  I have done this during the current term at Columbia University, using my new textbook, Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives (OUP, 2019).  We meet twice a week for 75 minutes.  In class, I present key topics covered in the book, and welcome a number of guest speakers who present their own experiences and points of view.  Every class is interactive, as I try to get the students to express their own ideas.  There have been four assignments: a policy brief, a book report, a debate, and a research paper.  Such courses are typically not required by major research universities, which is a mistake, but they are often required by liberal arts colleges.

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Personal space in the age of addictive technology

Approximately two months ago, I had brunch with a friend and colleague — Fred, not his real name — who I had known for over 40 years.  I had not seen him in six months.  Over the space of an hour, he received at least six calls on his cell phone from family members.  Based on what I could hear of his responses, no interruption dealt with an urgent matter.

Several times a year, I have dinner with dear friends of over 30 years, a vigorous professional couple in their 70s with accomplishments in the arts, the sciences, and public service.  Ann — also not her real name — is constantly using her phone to google for facts that will contribute to the conversation.  Her fact-checking is typically interesting, but is there a cost?

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Disruption and societal responsibility

In April 2019, I took a limo to Toronto’s international airport at the close of a workday.  I live near the downtown hockey arena, where the city’s beloved Maple Leafs were about to start game 4 in a Stanley Cup hockey elimination round.  These two factors as well as mandated detours slowed traffic significantly.  I was feeling social, so asked the driver about the effects of Uber on his livelihood.  Did I get an earful!

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