August 9, 2022

U of T computer scientist offers his take on how to prevent ‘digital dreams’ from becoming ‘nightmares’

Though the benefits and conveniences of the digital globe are endless, Ronald Baecker also thinks there is a dark facet to our obsession with technological know-how.

And the outcomes can be downright scary – so scary he thinks we will need to act now to curtail them.

But what exactly are these threats and what can we do about them?

Baecker, a professor emeritus in the Faculty of Arts & Science’s division of computer system science, provides insights and solutions in his new, self-published book, Digital Dreams Have Grow to be Nightmares: What We Have to Do.

Digital Dreams Have Become Nightmares: What We Must Do“I debated wordings for the title, but I decided to be much more insistent – it’s what we will have to do,” suggests Baecker. “So, I’ve experimented with to appear up with a concise record of steps in the context of being aware of this substantial established of nightmares.”

The ebook, which Baecker describes as a blend of “trade reserve and textbook,” traces the evolution of computer technology above the previous 60 several years. Divided into 3 pieces, it starts with the exuberance and optimism about the technology’s possible to revolutionize how we dwell.

Baecker remembers that excitement, getting labored on some of the extremely first modern desktops in the 1960s.

Baecker claims: “It was not pc programming that hooked me. It was believing that desktops could modify the planet. I assumed this would be for the improved. Over the upcoming 50 many years, at MIT and at the College of Toronto, my college students and I worked to make this vision a actuality.”

Baecker highlights how computers have radically enhanced locations these types of as health care and commerce, facilitated absolutely free speech and furnished possibilities for creativeness and collaboration.

He also profiles “digital pioneers” – leaders and visionaries of the electronic revolution this kind of as Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the English computer system scientist ideal recognised as the inventor of the World Wide Website, and the American personal computer scientist, Alan Kay, regarded as by some as the “father of personalized desktops,” whose programming get the job done paved the way for laptops and tablets.

But the e-book also covers the negatives affiliated with laptop technology – a digital world that has exacerbated inequities and division, and established “new forms of nastiness that range from the mildly aggravating to the existence-threatening.”

“I talk about every thing from dislike speech to pretend information to disinformation about COVID,” Baecker states. “I talk about threats to privateness, which include governing administration, substantial firms, increasing stages of automation that has led to disruptions of latest work patterns these as the gig overall economy.”

He also devotes a chapter to: “risky synthetic intelligence, AI algorithms that are currently being dependable however are making severe faults, and software program that we really don’t realize.”

Of all the threats, what keeps Baecker up at night?

“The two nightmares that frighten me most are our major tech monopolies, particularly Amazon and Facebook, and a untimely reliance on AI prior to it can be trusted and protected,” he suggests. 

For instance, he cites a Wall Avenue Journal post, based on interior Fb studies, expressing the corporation presents VIP people, like celebs, politicians and journalists, distinctive exemptions from content moderation regulations.

“AI is staying applied or proposed for use prematurely and with enormous threats to society in domains such as wellness, prison justice, senior care and warfare,” says Baecker. “Much of current AI is unreliable and deceptive in hiding that it truly is an algorithm, and is not able to explain conclusions.”

Inspite of this looming electronic dark cloud, and the sense of urgency, positive modify is attainable, Baecker says.

To preserve matters from obtaining worse, he helps make a quantity of tips for computer experts, scholars, technologies professionals, governments and the basic general public.

“The first just one is so very simple and so trivial that it really is evident, which is to prevent tech habit and intimidation,” Baecker says. “It’s really essential for us, no matter who we are, no matter what our task is, to say no to technological know-how at moments.”

Other tips consist of producing the analyze of personal computer science a lot more ethical, taming massive tech giants and keeping away from unproven artificial intelligence. One more recommendation is for citizens to discuss out about know-how when they feel it poses a risk, this sort of as when critics of Sidewalk Labs – an Alphabet subsidiary – opposed plans to change a element of Toronto’s waterfront into a “smart town.”

“People in Toronto spoke up so vigorously that Google to start with scaled down the challenge and then abandoned it,” Baecker says. “So, we can make a variation. We just require the bravery to communicate up.”

In the hope of acquiring many others to talk up, Baecker has also aided make a non-earnings team, Computer systems and Society – a community and resource internet site for learning and pondering ethically in the on the internet environment.

“This is a area exactly where we can go on the conversation and go on to engage,” says Baecker. “We reference about 80 important textbooks, over 1,000 papers and connected occasions. It is really incredibly fascinating to see how this has occur jointly.”

Regardless of the potential risks of emerging technology, Baecker is optimistic.

“The book’s over-all concept is 1 of hope, and I am hopeful,” suggests Baecker. “All I am attempting to do is deliver some of the strategies and synthesize them in a single put in a way that is accessible to not only a technological audience, but a lay audience.”