Opinion guest column

What the College of Computing can do for both MIT and society

As a premier tech school, MIT has the responsibility to consider ethics as related to AI

The new $1 billion Schwarzman College of Computing is reshaping MIT as a connective college that will connect AI studies to all disciplines. According to MIT News, this commitment hopes to “address the global opportunities and challenges presented by the prevalence of computing and artificial intelligence (AI).”

For non-Course 6 students, you might be rolling your eyes at what seems like yet another amalgam of buzzwords designed to lure the most drooling tech scouters to fresh, computational Course 6 brains. But buzzwords have become buzzwords for a reason — because they have potential for explosive growth, and it only makes sense to tap in for industrial and informational gain.

It’s no secret computer science dominates much of MIT. Around 40 percent of MIT undergraduates major in CS or a joint program combining CS with another field, and the largest research lab at MIT is the Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL). Ten out of the 67 Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) faculty have received the Turing Award, computing’s highest honor.

Because EECS holds such a large presence at MIT, there is definitely justification for a College of Computing to better manage the overflowing major. Although this college is more “interdisciplinary” than MIT’s other schools, it still allows room for more distinction and categorization of majors and classes. Students can either think of this change positively as appropriately banking on the global trend toward machine learning (ML) and AI, or at the very least begrudgingly accept the change as a necessary. Even in non-CS fields, knowledge of CS, especially ML, can be extremely useful and even the distinguishing factor amongst a sea of qualified applicants. As the college aims to be “an interdisciplinary hub for work in CS, AI, data science, and related fields,” according to MIT News, other majors can definitely also take advantage of the increasing CS resources.

Although a huge change to MIT, the idea of a “college of computing” is not novel or unique. Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), one of the top schools for CS, has had a School of Computer Science (SCS) since 1988. CMU’s SCS now has departments in Computational Biology, Computer Science, Human-Computer Interaction, Software Research, Language Technologies, Machine Learning, and Robotics. Similarly, instead of focusing too much on AI, the CoC might serve MIT better if we move toward SCS’s model of branching out.

Although students might be initially attracted to this college for the buzzwords and glamor, hopefully they will stay for the interdisciplinary programs and ethics. This new college serves not just to further feed the behemoth that is Course 6, but also gives students in other majors more flexibility in their endeavors. ML can be used to make predictions which might sway millions of dollars in the finance industry, save thousands from an impending natural disaster, or model the expansion of a city, not to mention help personalize services and improve data security. The focus on CS might shift a couple students from wet lab work to more computational studies, but the absence of physical, hands-on research does not equal apathy or losing passion for the field.

The College of Computing hopes to create more joint majors with Course 6 that ideally integrate CS and other majors in a balanced, interwoven fashion, unlike some of the current 6-X joint majors that students complain feel haphazardly stuck together. A common view is that the required classes never end up completely integrating to create a whole, and thus students feel lacking in both areas compared to students taking either normal major. Through the new College of Computing, hopefully the 6-X majors will be better organized and structured so that classes are better integrated and are ordered in a coherent sequence. Often, students appreciate the skill set coding provides them in the workforce, but knowing how to fully apply it to a certain major can be invaluable.

Perhaps more important than the practical benefits of the new college are the impacts it will have on society. President L. Rafael Reif acknowledges that “society is uneasy about technology” and thus, “technological advancements must go hand in hand with the development of ethical guidelines that anticipate the risks of such enormously powerful innovations.” With the era of AI, science fiction movies in which the machines take over are becoming less of entertaining horror and more realistic cautionary reminders to keep technology in check.

Groundbreaking events such as AlphaGo vs. Lee Sedol, in which Google DeepMind’s program AlphaGo won four out of five Go games against 18-time world champion Lee Sedol, remind us technology has far surpassed humans already in certain cognitive areas. In fact, distinguishing humans and computers is becoming harder and harder. With big data comes big responsibility. The capability to analyze huge data sets and create predictive neural networks is definitely a power that carries responsibility, and with MIT’s mission as a top tier tech school to educate students in STEM to “best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century,” MIT has a responsibility to act as ethical pathblazers of the world of computers — to use technology for the common good. Although not much is concrete about the CoC, Reif and Schwarzman alike have reaffirmed the importance of advancing AI and policies around its ethics hand in hand because society is uneasy about AI, and that is a clear sign be careful with the technology. For how useful ML and AI can be in making predictions, we don’t really know how far and fast the field will expand over the next couple of years, and it is this uncertainty that causes people stress. MIT has a responsibility to bridge the gap of this uncertainty to make sure human good is considered along with technological progress.

History holds many painful memories of when science ended up doing more harm than good, such as the invention of dynamite. The significant power of AI comes with the potential to do much harm, from mass data breaches to controlling the machines we use on a day-to-day basis. To prevent this, creating a separate College of Computing allows MIT to devote necessary attention to thoroughly researching the moral implications of AI and fostering a healthy environment for further research, and the college plans to do this by bringing together researchers from a wide range of MIT departments.

Ultimately, a university aims to equip students with the skill sets and mentalities that allow them to be the leaders of the new world — currently one that is discovering the power of AI. If students are better versed in the world’s newest dynamic changes and thus can better serve society, MIT is doing its job.

Soomin Chun is a member of the MIT Class of 2022.