“Technology Is Driving the Future, But Who Is Steering?”
In the 2021 Vienna Gödel Lecture, Moshe Vardi explained why the ethical lens is too narrow for dealing with technology’s impact on society.
In this year’s Vienna Gödel Lecture, hosted by TU Wien Informatics on 27 May 2021, Moshe Y. Vardi addressed the tremendous societal benefits computing yields. In his lecture “Technology Is Driving the Future, But Who Is Steering? From the Vienna Circle to Digital Humanism,” he illustrated that computing brings with it not only societal benefits but also significant societal costs, such as labor polarization, disinformation, and smartphone addiction. The typical reaction to this crisis is to label it as an “ethical crisis”, and the proposed response is to add courses in ethics to the academic computing curriculum. Moshe Vardi argued that the ethical lens is too narrow since the real issue was how to deal with technology’s impact on society.
“With best greetings from Vienna to Texas,” TU Wien Rector Sabine Seidler welcomed Moshe Vardi to the 2021 Vienna Gödel Lecture, held in a hybrid form virtual via Zoom and also with a tiny audience in TUtheSky. Pointing out the essential role of computer science in the process of digitalization, “Corona has shown clearly where we stand,” Sabine Seidler further elaborated. “During the last fourteen months, we gained an impression of the university of the future, of a virtual and physical learning space and campus.”
Host Stefan Szeider, Head of the research unit Algorithms and Complexity introduced Moshe and expressed suspicion that there most probably were “several Moshe Vardis, because a single person cannot accomplish that much”—and named Moshe’s constant support for the international computer science community, his conferences, public talks and ACM editorials—“always giving us plenty food for thought”, as Stefan Szeider put it.
Let’s Talk about Law
By quoting Shoshana Zuboff’s book “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism”, Moshe hinted at the fact that companies know everything about the users but not vice versa—“consumers pay for Google services in an opaque way.” He stressed the personal responsibility of every one of us, using services like Amazon, working for Google, or simply by reading Gmail’s terms of service before using it.
“Talking about ethics and not about laws and regulation is what the industry loves”, Moshe explained. “Why is there no IT public policy? Because IT industry successfully lobbied against any attempt to legislate and regulate IT public policy.” He also observed many tech companies using breaking the law as a business model, like Facebook’s demonstrated motto until a few years ago, “move fast and break things”, because otherwise, development was not moving quickly enough.
Are We Living in a Tech Dystopia?
He also pointed out that ethics were important and should inform public policy: “Ethics is about individual responsibility, public policy is about societal responsibility,” Moshe said, and „law is institutionalized, while ethics is not.” In his view, the question of how to regulate big tech is a tough one. Nevertheless, he pleaded not to view the times we live in as ones of “Tech Dystopia” but instead take control of the technology process, encourage human-centered innovation as declared in the Vienna Manifesto on Digital Humanism and take the steering wheel during the digital transformation of society: “Don’t be driven by technology. Drive it!”
How to Shape Policies
In her closing remarks, Dean Gerti Kappel thanked Moshe Vardi for all his engaging work, especially for the Faculty of Informatics where he served as a member of the International Advisory Board and also accepted an honorary doctorate. She pointed out that the term Digital Humanism was coined at TU Wien Informatics for the first time and that Moshe Vardi was among the ones who shaped this new way of looking at technology. “We are computer scientists, so what can we do to shape policies?“ she quoted a question from the Zoom forum. “As a start, we will teach members of parliament in digital competencies in a course beginning in June. That way, we go out and help politicians to shape the future of technology.”
About Vienna Gödel Lectures
Named after the famous Austrian-American logician, mathematician and philosopher Kurt Gödel (1906-1978) and introduced in 2013, the annual Vienna Gödel Lectures bring world-class scientists to Vienna. The lecture series illustrates the fundamental and disruptive contribution of computer science to our information society. It investigates how our discipline explains and shapes the world we live in—and thereby our lives as such.
About Moshe Vardi
Moshe Vardi is one of the most-cited computer scientists worldwide. He is the George Distinguished Service Professor in Computational Engineering and University Professor of Computer Science at Rice University, Texas.
His interests focus on automated reasoning, a branch of Artificial Intelligence with broad applications to computer science, including database theory, computational complexity theory, knowledge in multi-agent systems, computer-aided design and verification, and teaching logic across the curriculum.
Prior to joining Rice in 1993, he was at the IBM Almaden Research Center, managing the Mathematics and Related Computer Science Department. Vardi received his Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1981. He is the author and co-author of over 600 articles and two books, “Reasoning about Knowledge” and “Finite Model Theory and Its Applications”, and the editor of several collections.
Moshe Vardi is the recipient of numerous awards, including three IBM Outstanding Innovation Awards, the 2000 Goedel Prize, the 2005 ACM Kanellakis Award for Theory and Practice, the 2006 LICS Test-of-Time Award, the 2008 ACM PODS Mendelzon Test-of-Time Award, the 2008 ACM SIGMOD Codd Innovations Award, the 2008 Blaise Pascal Medal for Computer Science by the European Academy of Sciences, the 2008 ACM Presidential Award, the 2010 CRA Distinguished Service Award, the 2010 ACM Outstanding Contribution Award, the 2011 IEEE Computer Society Harry H. Goode Award, the 2012 EATCS Distinguished Achievements Award, and the Southeastern Universities Research Association’s 2013 Distinguished Scientist Award, the 2017 ACM Presidential Award, and the 2018 ACM SIGLOG Church Award.
The 2021 Donald E. Knuth Prize was recently awarded to Moshe Y. Vardi for outstanding contributions that apply mathematical logic to multiple fundamental areas of computer science. He also received the ACM - AAAI Allen Newell Award for contributions to the development of logic as a unifying foundational framework and a tool for modeling computational systems.
He is a fellow of several societies and a member of several honorary academies (US National Academy of Engineering and National Academy of Science, the American Academy of Arts and Science, the European Academy of Sciences, and the Academia Europaea). He holds multiple honorary doctorates—one of them commended by TU Wien in 2018— and is a Senior Editor of Communications of the ACM, the premier publication in computing.
In case you missed Moshe Vardi’s 2021 Vienna Gödel Lecture, you can watch it on YouTube.