College of Computing discussed during Nov. 20 faculty meeting

SHASS faculty express concern over ethical responsibilities of the college

Faculty members discussed organizational plans for the Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing, its role within the Institute, and its social and ethical responsibilities during a faculty meeting Nov. 20. Dean of the College of Computing Daniel Huttenlocher PhD ’88 gave updates on the proposed structure of the college and a timeline for implementation.

 “When we look at the world outside, computing, … hardware, software, algorithms, the advent of AI, are transforming just about everything,” Huttenlocher said. But computing “practice” is often ahead of both “technical understanding” and “understanding of societal impact,” Huttenlocher continued.

Huttenlocher’s presentation outlined three key areas that the college intends to address: computing fields and their rapid evolution, computing in other disciplines, and the social and ethical responsibilities of computing.

Then, Huttenlocher described how the college will seek to address these needs by restructuring and implementing new structures. The college will seek to bring together different departments, labs, and centers which have “particularly important roles in computing at MIT,” Huttenlocher said.

The Provost Task Force Working Group Report was developed Spring 2019, the EECS Plan was developed Summer 2019, and the College Plan Development began Fall 2019 and will hopefully be done in December, according to Huttenlocher.

Huttenlocher discussed the tensions that exist in defining faculty membership for the college. On one hand, many faculty members would benefit from mutual engagement with the college. However, Huttenlocher expressed concern about having too many faculty members in the college, saying that MIT is an “institute of technology” and not an “institute of computing.”

The report also defined the four academic units which would be central to the college: Electrical Engineering, Computer Science, Artificial Intelligence and Decision-Making (which would be co-managed with the School of Engineering), and the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society.

Huttenlocher said the college would create and seek to fill 25 new faculty positions through “shared hiring.” The college would select five or six other topics with important applications for computing. Faculty would then be hired in “clusters” pertaining to these distinct topics. Thus, instead of distributing the 25 faculty members across all different departments, the college would use these five or six clusters to hire the new members of the college.

Many SHASS faculty members had concerns pertaining to the social and ethical responsibilities of computing.

Caroline Jones, professor of architecture, presented a joint statement by Jones and Sherry Turkle, professor of science, technology, and society. Jones said that there is a pressing need for an independent center within the college which would seek to address important issues pertaining to the societal implications of technology, as “technology will not solve the problems that technology has caused.”

In response, Huttenlocher said it is necessary to separate “broad, Institute-wide” initiatives from the specific needs of the College of Computing.

Jones then said that MIT has historically handled “inflection points” where it became urgent to address the social and ethical responsibilities of technology by “re-investing in the humanities and in the social scientific critique of what technology had wronged.”

Susan Silbey, professor of anthropology, was concerned that the humanities and the social sciences would have a lessened role in the college. “This college was advertised from day one as having three legs. You keep putting the social aspects on a shorter leg.”

“It is a constant demeaning of the things that are human,” she continued, describing SHASS faculty members’ concern over the representation of their fields in the college.

Elizabeth Wood, professor of history, addressed tensions many SHASS faculty members have been experiencing in relation to their potential role in the college. “We were presented with the idea of the College of Computing as something that would reach across the five schools,” Wood said. “It is not that the SHASS faculty is looking for our part in your thing. It is that we were told that your thing was part of us.”

Wood continued, “For thirty years, I have not felt that this Institute really recognizes the phenomenal, multi-published, multi-award-winning faculty that it has on the SHASS side.”