ACM Working Group Argues For Change to Peer Review Process to Mitigate Negative "Side Effects" to Computing

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New blog suggests computing authors should identify, address what could go wrong

Every field of research and innovation is, at some point, faced with serious questions about both the positive and negative impacts of its advancements.

Chemistry faced tough questions with advancements in dynamite and weaponized poison gases. Physics developed nuclear bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and ushered in an era of uncertainty over the future use of such weapons. Civil engineering faced a series of infrastructure disasters that led to new initiatives and, ultimately, improvements in research and applications.

But what about computing?

Recent developments in computer science, and the ways they can be manipulated for nefarious or ethically ambiguous purposes, often put the field directly in the crosshairs of public criticism. In fact, questions about autonomous vehicles and issues of privacy and personal data are currently at the center of the public conversation.

Leveraging peer review process

At the inaugural ACM Future of Computing Academy (FCA) meeting in June 2017, many of the attendees agreed that it was time for the computing research community to do more in response. As a result, the Future of Work group in the FCA has taken on the issue in a blog post, titled It’s Time to Do Something: Mitigating the Negative Impacts of Computing Through a Change to the Peer Review Process.

The post, which School of Interactive Computing Assistant Professor Lauren Wilcox contributed to, argues that it is up to the computing research community to work harder to address the downsides of computing innovations. Pogress can be made, it suggests, by pushing researchers to more deeply consider the negative impacts of their work as part of the peer review process.

Over several months of discussion, the blog post states, an idea began to emerge that significant progress can be made by leveraging the peer review process to address, “(the) gap between the real-world impacts of computing research and the positivity with which we in the computing community view our work.”

“This gap represents a serious and embarrassing intellectual lapse,” the post asserts. “The scale of this lapse is truly tremendous: it’s analogous to the medical community only writing about the benefits of a given treatment and completely ignoring the side effects, no matter how serious they are.”

Wilcox said the status quo, which is to frame innovations in ways that highlight the anticipated benefits to society without addressing what could go wrong, has become insufficient in the face of rapid change.

Mitigating negative impacts of computing innovation

“More and more, computing research questions are becoming indistinguishable from social questions, from questions about health, learning, working, and how we govern and apply laws,” she said. “It thus becomes insufficient to say, ‘I’m just a computer scientist’ in response to tough questions about the impacts of our computing innovations on such important dimensions of society.”

Essentially, the high-level recommendation from Wilcox and her Future of Work colleagues is that peer reviewers should require that papers and proposals include considerations for reasonable broader impacts, not just those that paint the innovation in a favorable light. For example, a grant proposal that seeks to develop computational modeling and intelligence to complete a task common in job descriptions would be required to address the impact on people who hold those corresponding jobs, as well as those on the receiving end of its output.

“We want to engage the community in a discussion about the role of the ACM, the largest professional organization for computing, in mitigating the negative impacts of computing innovations,” Wilcox said. “We believe that we can move the needle in a positive direction by starting with the peer review process. We still have to work out many details in order to do this well.”

Engaging with potential solutions

Rather than suggest that authors simply list the potential negative impacts of their work, the proposal recommends that authors engage with specific effects and potential solutions to move toward “net positive” impacts.

“As computing technology becomes more sophisticated,” Wilcox said, “its impacts on the world will become even more pronounced, be they positive or negative. Of course, it will be difficult for computing researchers to accurately account for negative impacts. We are generally not trained in the social or environmental sciences, nor are we typically students of critical theory, law or ethics, among other disciplines.

“However, as a professional community, we can work harder to seek and consider perspectives from these fields. We believe that researchers can more actively seek out and cite the relevant scholarship and journalism that reasonably suggests positive and deleterious effects of our computing innovations.”

The ACM FCA is a competitively-selected organization for exceptional early-career researchers and practitioners. The ACM has given the FCA a mandate that is both high-stakes and open-ended: the FCA has “the privilege and responsibility to become the voice of the future of the computing field at large and of ACM specifically.” The ACM is the world’s largest professional organization for computer scientists and operates the Turing Award.


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    David Mitchell
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