DIGETHIX 1: Data Science, Interdisciplinary Research, and the Problem of the Humanities with Wesley Wildman

In this episode of the podcast, Seth interviews Dr. Wesley Wildman. Wesley is a Professor of Philosophy, Theology, and Ethics. He is one of the founding faculty members of Boston University’s new Faculty of Computing and Data Sciences. He also serves as the executive director and chairman of the board for the Center for Mind and Culture.

 

Seth talks to Wesley about the history of the Center for Mind and Culture and about CMAC’s unique approach to problems that could benefit from both humanities and scientific methods. They discuss their hopes that CMAC has for training scholars to work across subject boundaries and to work in teams. They talk about Boston University’s new Faculty of Computing and Data Sciences, a university initiative that cuts across disciplines to try to apply data sciences to every discipline that has an interest. Finally, they talk about their motivations for developing a podcast like DIGETHIX. The key questions for this episode are: how can we better educate researchers to tackle the complicated problems that we face today? Are there ways in which the university system itself may need to be adapted?

 

Music: “Dreams” from Bensound.com

aka PHOTO GUY

Episode Transcript

Seth Villegas  0:05  

Welcome to the DIGETHIX podcast. My name is Seth Villegas, and it is a pleasure to share today’s conversation with you.

 

In this episode of the podcast, I interview Wesley Wildman. Wesley Wildman is a professor of philosophy, theology and ethics. He is one of the founding faculty members of Boston University’s new faculty of Computing and Data Aciences. He also serves as the executive director and chairman of the board for the Center for the Mind and Culture. In this interview, I talk to Wesley about the history for the Center for Mind and Culture and about CMAC’s unique approach to problems that can benefit from both humanities and scientific methods. The key questions for this episode are: how can we better educate researchers to tackle the complicated problems that we face today? Are there ways in which the university system itself may need to be adapted? This podcast would not have been possible without the help of the DIGETHIX team, Nicole Smith and Luis Salinas. The intro and outro track, “Dreams,” was composed by Benjamin Tissot through bensound.com. This episode has been cut and edited by Talia Smith. Now I am pleased to present you with my interview with Dr. Wesley Wildman.

 

So hello, everyone. I’m really pleased to be joined today by Wesley Wildman. Wesley Wildman is not only the executive director, and chair of the board for the Center for mining culture, but is also my advisor. So someone I’ve worked with quite closely. So thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today.

 

Wesley Wildman  1:31  

My pleasure to be with you, Seth. 

 

Seth Villegas  1:32  

As a start to our conversation, I was hoping to learn a little bit more about the Center for Mind and Culture. So what is the Center for Mind and Culture? If you had to  to someone who is an alien? Not not someone who’s in Australia, right, who’s probably a lot more familiar with what the Center for Mind and Culture is, and the average American but if you were to talk to someone who didn’t necessarily know about it, well, what is it? Why did you start it? How did you get this thing going? 

 

Wesley Wildman  1:59  

Is it okay, if I picture in Australian alien?

 

Seth Villegas  2:02  

Sure that would work. 

 

Wesley Wildman  2:04  

So I started the Center for Mind and Culture with Dr. Patrick McNamara. He’s a neuroscientist at Boston University Medical School. And he and I came across each other because of our existing publications. And we decided that we wanted to work together. This was now 14 years ago or so. And he had a lab at the VA in Jamaica Plain, the Veterans Affairs hospital has this giant building full of labs, and he had one of them up on the ninth floor there. And that became the first home for center for mind and culture. And we were working on various research projects there. And I’ve got to tell you, those early days are kind of heady. There’s all sorts of energy and excitement and lots of people working on things. But the really critical moment for the two of us was when we we actually met in some strange little corner of the VA that I can, I’ve been back looking for, and I’ve not been able to find it. But we sat down in this area that looked like it had been used for storing furniture, and to have a set up in a booth, opposite one another. And we talked about what it would be like to start an organization that allowed us to do research that was difficult to do and difficult to find in the university context. Because it was so radically interdisciplinary, that would cross over philosophy, and the social sciences and neuroscience and medicine and so many other things that we care about.

 

And it would create a place where we could train students where we could create a new breed of postdoc who are comfortable working across disciplines in that dramatic way. And where we could make a difference in research as well. So that was the vision. And that’s how we got started. And it’s changed over the years. But that’s a very precious story. And if you were to talk to Patrick McNamara, at some point, he’d probably be able to identify where that spot was, we had that original conversation better than I could, because he knew the building better than I did, but I’ve not been able to find it since. 

 

Seth Villegas  4:11  

What kind of research are you doing, though, that requires, say, a neuroscientist and a philosopher of religion to get together, like what sorts of problems actually require both of those people. I would imagine for our listeners, when they think about those things, they don’t seem at all interrelated. 

 

Wesley Wildman  4:28  

I agree. neuroscience and philosophy don’t seem that interrelated on the surface. The same is true for sociology, mathematics, and computer science and data science and the other sorts of things that we have experts in at the Center for Mind and Culture. Everything in a university sits in its own little compartment, usually called a department or a school or something. And people in those areas seem quite happy working on their own problems. So they’re interacting, but the sorts of problems that matter most to regular people usually require input from lots of different corners. So the one of the early projects who worked on is a good example. There are people who suffer from Parkinson’s disease, which is one of Patrick’s specialties. And these Parkinson’s disease sufferers experience things that go beyond the usual motor problems that people with Parkinson’s disease suffer. Those motor problems are associated with loss of dopamine neurons that regulate motor activity. And it’s a very frightening thing to feel as though your body is moving in ways that you can’t completely control. But the thing is, those very same dopamine neurons are implicated in religious experience in the understanding of yourself, why you get comfort, when you’re feeling frightened and need some resources, Patrick discovered that people with a particular version of Parkinson’s disease, we’re particularly likely to lose touch with the very comforting resources that they would rely on to help themselves manage what’s a very frightening disease process. So already, we’ve got a kind of pastoral aspect in there. And we’ve certainly got a philosophical or religious studies type of aspect, because we’re talking about people’s access to their religious experiences and their beliefs and the sorts of things that could be helpful. We’ve also got sociological questions about how you get the word out about this, how information about this spreads and their educational features for medical school, people learn about Parkinson’s disease, but they usually learn about it as a motor disorder, they don’t usually learn about it as something that changes the way people process emotions, or how they access the accompanying religious thoughts and feelings that are so important to them when it comes to coping with something difficult as just, that’s just one of 1000 examples where it turns out, we need to be pretty aggressive in working across disciplines, in order to come to terms with the real problems that people were facing, and that we tried to tackle.

 

Seth Villegas  7:09  

You mentioned there, see what med school students might learn about something like Parkinson’s. And if we think of a diagnostic approach, which is this is a disease and it has these kinds of debilitating effects on this kind of person, it would seem that that kind of description is is absent of the emotional subjective experience of that person. And so if you were to gain a fuller understanding of the disease itself, it would actually mean enlarging the scope of what you’re looking at to encompass more than, say, the degeneration of their body parts in particular ways. 

 

Wesley Wildman  7:45  

That’s correct that left onset Parkinson’s is when the left side of your body starts shaking. First, right onset Parkinson’s is the opposite, that the left side of the body is controlled by the right side of the brain. So when the left side of the body starts shaking, first, it’s the right side of the brain that’s experiencing the toughest time getting those dopamine neurons to work properly. And that bright side of the brain is also critical in a secretary that processes emotion and access to religious experiences and beliefs that will be comforting. So there’s a neurological story to tell that can connect that the physical aspects of Parkinson’s disease in terms of body movements with the emotional and spiritual aspects of Parkinson’s disease, as that story becomes better known, it will make it into medical textbooks, and people being trained in Parkinson’s, specialized Parkinson’s sleds, for example. They will know that and they’ll know to ask questions, if someone shows up with left onset Parkinson’s disease, they’ll know that it’s likely that they’re going to have very important emotional changes that will endanger their ability to cope with the disease. And the word will spread and eventually it’ll make it into curricula for medical doctors, and the very first time they hear about Parkinson’s disease. They won’t just hear about a motor disorder, they’ll also hear about an emotion and a spiritual disorder. 

 

Seth Villegas  9:12  

Much earlier you had mentioned that part of the Center for Mind and Culture’s mission is not simply to say how researchers and professors like yourself to look at these issues, but also to educate more graduate students and doctoral fellows postdocs in looking at these sorts of things as well. So if you’re to who to imagine the kind of person that you would hope would come out of the Center for mining culture, what kinds of skills would that person have? What would they look like? 

 

Wesley Wildman  9:44  

I love that question said answer that question is one word that needs to be explained, but it’s room changer. That’s how I picture these people. People like you or people like others who are doing doctoral degrees at any nearby university or people who are postdocs who work with us, I want them to become so comfortable working across disciplines, that when you put them in a room dealing with a complex subject, they’re really unafraid of not knowing everything, and are unafraid of working across disciplines. And they have very serious skills in more disciplines in their home discipline. So they change the whole tone of the room. They make it possible for a roomful of experts who might be struggling for a solution suddenly, to become much more efficient. And to work in a more concerted coordinated way, towards new insights. I’ll say this over and over again, putting people like that train in that way into a room makes everyone else around them so much better. And it makes the whole team productive. Of course, that’s only gonna work if these people also know how to work on teams. So training them in teamwork, how to lead teams, how to operate in a team is also really critical. And we work on both of those things.

 

Seth Villegas  11:03  

I think the teamwork angle might be even more radical than you’re framing it here you’re talking about it as if it’s something that’s completely normal. But as someone who’s getting the humanities PhD in theology, almost all of my work is done alone, unless I’m deliberately working on a project with other people. So for someone who’s in the humanities, like yourself, how did you get involved with these team based approaches, it would seem to be a kind of a foreign concept, not something that most people would seek out. 

 

Wesley Wildman  11:35  

That’s fair, I think, in the humanities, people are used to working with obscure books or stretches of history or in library archives, by themselves for a lot of the day, trying to master very complicated datasets and interpret them. And very often, there isn’t even a data set by working speculatively to construct a theory that’s capable of making sense of a rich swathe of experience. And it’s often totally solitary, until you present the results to other people and get feedback and maybe refine your thoughts. But there are so many problems in the world that can’t be handled that way, they just can’t be handled in a solitary, do it by yourself. Why? For the simple reason that it’s not possible for any single individual to know enough? You can’t know enough disciplines, are we expert enough, in enough disciplines, even if you know something about them to be able to make a leading edge, quality of contribution to a problem, therefore, gonna have to work on teams. Now the sciences that are completely used. And there are lots of spots in the humanities where you do see interdisciplinary work. But it’s not common for humanities people to learn teamwork, it’s a whole set of skills. It’s a different way of thinking about research, publication, fundraising, it’s a real cultural shift. And I’ve tried to train humanities scholars in such a way that they can both operate by themselves in isolation and on teams, so that they’re flexible, they can look for different kinds of employment, and they can be much more useful on a variety of research topics than would have been the case otherwise.

 

Seth Villegas  13:15  

If I was going to go talk to say someone in a cohort about this type of thing, again, someone who’s studying theology or philosophy and tell them, Hey, why don’t you go over and work with someone that computer science department or someone who’s doing engineering about, about something that’s bothering them, and that both of you could equally benefit from that? I imagine for both my friend who’s in the cohort, and also for the prospective engineer, there’d be a kind of mutual suspicion there, that anything could actually happen from bringing those two kinds of people together. So reveal a bit of my hand here, both of us work with the competing and, and data science that I know, sorry, department, the division, but whatever the right noun is that goes with what CDs is, right now, once we are in the room, it was really clear that there was immense value that we could provide to what was going on. But prior to us being there, it’s kind of like oh, but those, you know, those humanities people in their arcane books and texts that are chained to the wall or it right, like there’s just this complete misunderstanding of actually what happens in different kinds of departments. 

 

Wesley Wildman  14:22  

This organization of university departments is a problem that’s clearly recognized by a lot of university administrators. And the reason why they see it is especially because they recognize that the kinds of problems that they’re trying to solve that they really like to solve in the universities don’t fall under the property of any particular department. So they wind up creating these combo clusters. biomedical engineering, for example, with biologists and engineers and medical doctors and often neuroscientists are working together on particular problems. That makes perfect sense. But those collaborations across different sciences are very easy to picture compared with collaborations between the sciences, and the humanities. Humanists scholars often work together as well, for example, religion scholars who work with political science scholars and historians, on particular issues. So within the humanities, it’s quite possible to do good teamwork, good collaboration across disciplines also. So the real problem is when you try and put the humanities and the sciences together, strangely enough, then, when you actually get to the point of facing problems where both humanities and science people can make contributions, it’s stunning how quickly people see that it’s important, you think it will be hard to make out that it doesn’t exist very often this dramatic multi disciplinary research, so it’d be a bit of a stretch, but now, it just happens so naturally, and so easily. Moreover engineers working with humanities, people, US have told us that working with us has just changed their perspective on everything that they do. It’s been dramatically life transforming for them to experience, the depth of knowledge that humanities people have, and how they can bring that to bear when building computational models of social systems. Because those humanities people, they understand human beings really well. And that can be built into those systems. To some extent, I think, plenty of humanities people I’ve talked to have had the same reaction as those engineers, they did not realize that there were methods in the engineering world that could help them clarify their philosophical humanities theory so that they’ll come away from the interaction experience understanding their own theory better than they did going in, then we constantly hear people on both sides saying, why aren’t we doing this more often? It’s so obvious. And it’s so powerful to my way of thinking, Seth, this is the fundamental answer to the problem of the humanities, in the contemporary University, the humanities are so useful, but they don’t usually think of themselves as useful for other people. If they could demonstrate that usefulness, then everyone’s work would get better. And then the humanities would be understood to be critical components, not just for the congregation of young minds, but also for conducting research in engineering, computer science, and so many other domains of university research.

 

Seth Villegas  17:37  

If I think about my own experience with this, again, here at Boston University, or even as far back as my undergraduate education, I would think that some of the pushback that I would get on this is that it’s okay for someone like me to do this, that there’s something about, say, me or the other people who are in the Center for Mind and Culture that allows them to bridge this kind of a gap, but that they themselves can’t go through that process of communicating their specialty, they just wouldn’t know where to start. And so what would you say to people like that? How might you encourage them to start to branch out because I think it’s not just that it’s unclear at the start what the benefits might be. But there’s also, again, because I’m in the humanities, I see this anxiousness all the time of, I just don’t know what I could contribute. It’s it’s almost there’s a self defeating circle that happens within people’s minds. 

 

Wesley Wildman  18:35  

I don’t think everyone needs to do this. There’s tons of work for a historian or philosopher to do just within their own field and building up the Web of Knowledge in those fields is valuable, intrinsically valuable. And this is why we love the humanities because of the intricate hermeneutically structured webs of knowledge that we can build on. It’s extraordinary what we do. So beautiful. I don’t want that to stop. So I don’t think it’s necessary for people to figure out how to do this. But often enough, a humanities scholar will be chatting with me, another humanities scholar, and they will say to me, as this thing I’m thinking about at the moment, sort of thing that really could make a difference in the world. For example, I have a dear friend who was speaking to me not long ago about liberation theology, the whole concept of prioritizing the liberation of people in theological interpretation and research, which is something I love, it’s very important to me. Somewhere during that conversation. This person said to me, this is revolutionary stuff, we can change the way the world works. And I asked a very simple question in return. spell it out for me. What’s the theory of change? Explain to me how it is that research and look liberation theology is supposed to change the prospects of real people in the world. That’s a very challenging question. In all humanities, people who want to have some type of impact, who want to solve some type of real world problem, that’s not all of them. But the ones who do need to ask themselves that question about impact, they need to be able to identify the theory of change that links, the good ideas that they have. And the power of those ideas to change people in people’s minds, the actual processes of change that they can articulate. And it’s not just a matter of PR, as working with communications experts to get your message out. It’s very often a matter of trying to think about things like a company’s How do you transform an economy? Or questions about people’s biases or prejudices? How do you challenge those. And that means you’re talking already to economists and cognitive scientists. And there’s a million other elements to making an emphasis on liberation in theology effective in the world. And there are experts who know about the various aspects of those things. So any theory of change is necessarily going to involve a lot of other people. So bottom line, to the extent that people care about making a difference in the world, and solving real world problems, they are going to need to master these skills of collaborating with others. Otherwise, the humanities is just going to be amusing themselves, essentially, with their beautiful worlds, but not having the kind of impact that they really longed to have.

 

I know that we together had a whole year long course on scientific methods, learning different kinds of scientific theories. And you know, as I’ve been in the process of putting together my dissertation proposal, one of the things that kept coming to mind is, well, how would I know that I was right? Like what sorts of things what I see in the world about my own theory, to to explain what is that’s going on? So I know, just from being around these kinds of methods, it’s been personally influential to me, even in terms of the ways that I think that a traditional humanities scholar may not always, always go for. And I think that there is lots of benefit towards learning different kinds of methods of really branching out. But I also recognize that it’s extraordinarily challenging. You know, one of the things that you mentioned earlier, is that you need teams, because you can’t specialize in everything. But in order to have a team, you have to develop a kind of common language, to talk to other people, between teams, which seems to go against the humanity’s inclination to have to develop specialized terminology, let’s say and to use those special wise terms in really delimited ways to make sure that you get your point across Exactly. Whereas it seems to be a completely different process to go through translation of everything that you know, to someone who may not have that same background. 

 

In practice, the problem of everyone having their own specialized discourses isn’t that difficult to solve inmy experience. Starts out looking terribly difficult, because how a philosopher is supposed to take the wealth of technical distinctions and carefully defined terms that they operate with, into a conversation with an engineer has a completely different set of skills. So type of expertise, maybe the conversation looks like it will be completely intractable, these untranslatable languages. So you’ve got an incommensurable situation, and it’s going to all end in tears. That’s what it looks like at the start. But in practice, there’s a lot of mutability, because you’re gonna have the right people. If I, as a philosopher of religion, am not interested in learning from an engineer about their perspective, then there won’t be any merging of languages at all. And if an engineer is dismissive of my insights, then by to blocking a process of change, that could be genuinely transformative. But we get pretty good at telling who can do that. And who can we try and put in the room, just two people are going to be able to do it. And when you do, man, it is a completely different proposition. It turns out that these people can communicate beautifully with one another across disciplines. Now, they’re going to sometimes invoke ideas that the other groups not going to understand. But they can explain those ideas. And sometimes I’ve got a distinction that comes straight from epistemology ontology or something. And I want to introduce that into a conversation and I, I’ve immediately got a challenge on my hands, how am I going to say that in a way that my engineering or sociology or political science, friends are really going to grasp? And it turns out, these people are really smart. They can grasp my distinction, so long as I’m not stupid about the way I explain them. So there is really the emergence of a shared language. It’s not a universal language. It’s not a Pidgin language. It’s a custom language that develops for the specific task, a specific problem that you’re trying to solve that language is effective for that problem. Now, you might not be able to generalize, it probably depends on those people. You couldn’t turn it into some giant, massive meta language for everyone to use across, I don’t think that sort of thing exists not by longshot. But for the purposes of solving specific problems, you can actually communicate well enough to make advances. 

 

Seth Villegas  25:26  

I think this would be a good point to turn a little bit to something that’s trying to do that. So the computing and data sciences that I’d mentioned earlier, it would seem that that’s a new attempt to forge say, at least the kind of environment in which these kinds of languages might develop. And in which you might build a look at different kinds of problems. It’s it’s a big university initiative, and it’s one I’m really excited about. So could you tell us a little bit more about CDs and about how you got involved with it? 

 

Wesley Wildman  25:57  

The Faculty of computing and data sciences, is a new concept in the university. It’s not a university unit, like the other units, it’s one that actually acts across all of the units at the university, the medical schools School of Public Health School of Theology, the college of arts and sciences, engineering, and every other part. It’s supposed to be connecting to computing and data sciences. But it’s a fascinating idea. It’s one thing for university to say, we believe in wrong to disciplinary research and solving problems that are across disciplines and interfering with the balkanization of university disciplines, while maintaining disciplinary integrity and skills, right? You can say that as much as you want, but how are you supposed to actually make that happen, particularly in relation to computing and data sciences, his methods are so flexible and are proving to be so useful in every part of the university. So Boston University solution has been to build a new faculty, that’s going to include people who do work across disciplines. So it’s not just a new computer science department. It’s not just a new electrical and computer engineering department. It’s not just a new math stats department. It’s something brand new. And it’s got this policy of picturing the research done there in one of two ways, both of which are understood to be completely legitimate. One is data science plus x, where x is some other disciplines. So this is when you’ve got someone who’s expert in data science skills. Applying data science to something they care about, such as economics, or game theoretic approaches to trying to have better voting mechanisms are a million other things. He can also have x plus data science, this is where someone from a field approaches data scientists looking for skills to help them solve problems in their field. So for example, someone from air sciences might say, I’ve got this complicated problem is a massive amount of data, how do I approach it? Or someone from sociology says, I’ve got these social networks, how am I supposed to analyze them. So either in the data science plus x form or in the x plus data science form, you’ve got aggressively multidisciplinary research. And the whole point of the faculty of computing and data sciences is to pull together faculty in the university who operate in that way instinctively, and have a record of publication and achievement in that way. They become the core faculty. And then we hire new faculty, who also operate in that way and gradually build up a faculty that’s able to create a new culture that doesn’t look like a computer science department. It looks like computing and data sciences department that’s reaching out to every part of the university, to show you how serious Boston University is about that by building the Center for computing and data sciences, which is an 18 story building in the heart of the Boston University campus, a really innovative design, and it’s got the promise of uniting so many different research activities and teaching activities within university that is tremendously exciting. 

 

Seth Villegas  29:14  

It seems to me that CDS in part seems to be an outgrowth of things that had already been happening. So for instance, there is the law and algorithms course that was actually taught out of the law school, which was responsive to this real question of we have these these tech companies, and there are lawsuits involved, you know, there’s different kinds of compliance and regulations. And so, as a kind of a natural outgrowth of the sorts of problems that the students are running into, it was only a responsible to how the classes catered towards both those people both towards the law professionals, and towards the computer science students who are going to be working at these companies in the future. And so, it would seem that, especially given the topic, something like data that does reach across things, and data can be in anything, it doesn’t refer to a specific kind of thing, that it would be necessary to create a context in which people can actually start to collaborate on these issues. 

 

Wesley Wildman  30:13  

One of the parts of Boston University that’s been so deeply involved in interdisciplinary collaboration across disciplines, but involving computing and data sciences has been a Hariri Institute. That’s been there for quite a few years. And the original director of the Hariri Institute is now the Associate Provost with responsibility for running the faculty of computing and data sciences that’s Azer Bestavros. This Hariri Institute, is now being run by someone else, Eric Kolaczyk, who’s equally amazing in terms of his understanding of problems taking shape across disciplines and leadership of the Hariri Institute has been reflected in its programs in its funding initiatives. In young scholars, it’s brought on and more senior scholars that the research trajectories that it’s tried to sponsor, the lecture series that it gives. It’s been incredible. And the fact that it’s existed, I think, was one of the main reasons that the university was really convinced that the faculty of computing and data sciences was the right way to go. So in a certain way, I think the birth of the faculty of computing and data sciences came from the university administration’s vision, and from the existence of the Hariri Institute and other university projects, that were already demonstrating the value of this type of radical multidisciplinarity. 

 

Seth Villegas  31:50  

Part of what we had a chance to work on with CDS was specifically on ethics and ethics content. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how does ethics play into this in a way that’s, say more than just about maintaining the boundaries of legal regulations of some kind, or of being a good coder. But I think this is where we start to get into those humanities oriented questions of what does it mean to be a good person within this domain? And on the face of it, that seems to be a very abstract problem to try to apply to say, again, a computer science department of some kind? So why do you think that that question is coming up to the surface here in regards to computing and data sciences? And what do you think we can do about it? 

 

Wesley Wildman  32:47  

If you work in the professions, outside of universities, in computing and data sciences pretty much anywhere, you only need to be in the job a week, before you see an ethical question arise. As we work with burnt director on producing materials for training people in the computing and data science professions. We’ve generated 1000s of case studies, real world situations, which are really just the tip of the iceberg, because there are 1000 questions coming up all the time. How do I deal with this data? There’s a confidentiality issue. There’s an analysis issue. And there’s a question about whether I should choose just a subset of the data to analyze or do the whole data set, even if the results not quite as strong as it would be otherwise? There’s millions of questions like that all the time. And then when you’re writing algorithms to guide machine learning applications, which are a dime a dozen these days, there’s real questions about the fairness of those algorithms. And there’s real questions about whether you’ve got the right people even in place to assess fairness. How would you even tell us something was fair, it’s not just some simple assessment, there are real questions to be asked about who’s making those assessments? Who has power, who’s interested in protecting power and so on. Really, you can’t even open your eyes in one of these large computer oriented corporations without seeing 100 different ethical questions. So it’s really not a question of how the issue arises. It’s more a question of how we’ve been able to go so long without having a formal discussion of ethics in relation to computing the data sciences. Now fortunately, computer science departments have gotten pretty good at offering courses in ethics and computing and data sciences. But what we’re trying to do in the Faculty of computing, data sciences, and every degree program and every certificate program and in fact in every single individual course, is to ensure that the relevant ethics issues come up. So there’s no isolation between the technical training or the applied training that students get and discussion of ethical questions that are so proximate to the problems that they deal with when they apply their training.

 

Seth Villegas  35:08  

 That sounds great in terms of preparing students by looking back at past case studies, other things have already come up. But it would seem to me that part of the problem is that whatever sorts of ethical issues might come up in the future, those things may be related to technologies and algorithms that don’t even exist yet. So kinds of ways of approaching problem that we can’t even foresee. So how is it that we go about actually preparing people to go out into the real world for unknown issues of unknown proportions?

 

Wesley Wildman  35:41  

I hate to base my own specialization, but philosophy really helps at moments like this. Philosophy gives you a way of identifying principles that are more general and specific case studies. They can be derived empirically from case studies, but they can be formalized as well, formalized and given conceptual foundation somewhat independent of case studies. So that those very same principles can be applied to new situations that have not yet arrived on thing. And you’re right, they will arrive, new situations will arrive, in fact, new principles will be needed as well. So it’s not like philosophers can just sit down and figure out the ethics issues that are going to come up and ended there, the discussion will go on. So I think we need philosophical ethics and computing and data sciences, to stay in touch with one another, and with relevant disciplines, such as law, so that we can figure out not only what’s really happening now and what the relevant principles are, but also what’s going to happen in the future. To the extent that we can anticipate it, and be ready for.

 

Seth Villegas  36:50  

To transition a little bit away from just the university environment, I want to maybe finish up our time by talking a little bit about this podcast itself. From your perspective, why should the public be interested in things like digital ethics beyond just the people who work on these things are who are affected by these things? Why would it be important to kind of enlarge that conversation beyond what happens at a university?

 

Wesley Wildman  37:16  

The Center for Mind and Culture is blessed with a three fold mission. Part of it is research. And part of it is training. And we’ve talked about both of those in our discussion today. But another part is outreach. The outreach side of our mission, inevitably involves communicating research finding. But there’s more to it than that. We’re also trying to create within the general public, a new way of thinking about universities and research and training, that new way of thinking is that universities can solve problems, university experts outside of universities can solve problems. We can work together on this, and I want the general public to expect veterans have research to be doing useful things that can make the world better. That expectation can be cultivated through these outreach efforts. That’s one side of it. The other side is that regular people are affected by all sorts of pieces of research that we ourselves are involved in and that universities are involved in. Just think about maternal mortality project, the fact that the United States has developing nation levels of mothers dying in childbirth, or in the few months afterwards, for certain subsets of women in the United States, is a very serious message. If you happen to be one of those sorts of women, African American women, Native American women, especially, then you’ve got a legit concern. Seriously, having a baby is as dangerous for me here in the United States is as it is in third world countries. It’s hard to stomach but it’s true. That’s a miserable situation. So anyone who cares about those people, or those people themselves have something at stake in solving that problem, understanding why it happens, and reversing. That’s true for that problem and 1000 other problems like it, and it’s true by the ethics of computing and data sciences and digital activities in our culture. When you go to apply for a loan, there is a machine learning algorithm that’s assisting a loan officer to decide whether or not you should get it. How the heck does that machine learning algorithm work? Is anyone checking out to see whether that machine learning algorithm is biased? Is that going to affect negatively me or people I know that I care about or if I’m just a general good citizen, I care about justice. I could be super concerned about something like that. And again, it’s that time, so 1000 in the domain of digital technologies in our world. So rather than just giving a litany of examples, I should probably just leave it there. Everyone has something at stake in this. And the DIGETHIX podcast is supposed to create, in its listeners an expectation that universities have experts in computing and data sciences are going to be sophisticated and responsible in their ethical approach to these sorts of challenges. 

 

Seth – Outro:

Thank you for listening to this conversation with Wesley Wildman. In this episode, we spoke about Wesley’s unique background and about how he developed a passion for interdisciplinary projects. Wesley now trains researchers to work across boundaries in order to solve real world problems. He gives several examples of what this can look like, such as computational models of complex social problems that require many different kinds of expertise to make sense of. This approach to education and to research is quite novel, one that we hope can become better embraced. He hopes to build a generation of scholars who can tackle issues that go beyond merely science or technology, such as the kinds that we talk about here on Digethix. If we can get a generation of researchers that have the skills to communicate their expertise, perhaps we can come to a better consensus of how to start to answer the questions that we have with digital ethics today. While we may not have all the answers that we want yet, we hope that the Faculty of Computing and Data Sciences and Digethix can both act as contexts in which those answers might be developed. 

 

You can find more information about digethix on our website, digethix.org, and more information about our sponsoring organization, The Center for Mind and Culture, at mindandculture.org. If you would like to respond to this episode, you can email us at digethix@mindandculture.org, and you can find us at twitter.com/digethix and facebook.com/digethix. You can also find this information in the description for this episode. I hope to hear from you before our next conversation. This is Seth, signing off.

 

Transcribed by https://otter.ai