12.2. Analyzing Impacts

In this class, you will be asked on several assignments to find one or more articles about some aspect of computing, and use them to describe it as well as its positive and negative impacts. You will do this by answering a series of four questions. They are listed below as questions A–D. Below each question is a series of prompts to consider. You do not necessarily need to address each prompt—they are simply guides of things you should consider while answering that question. You should generally be able to answer each question in a few sentences.

12.2.1. Choosing a Technology

You will be given a list of general themes to explore, like “machine learning” or “software bugs”. However, those themes are too broad to analyze in this format—you are expected to choose a single, concrete algorithm or technology, such as “Microsoft’s chatbot that learned to be racist” or “the Ariane 5 rocket that exploded”.

As part of choosing a technology, find one or more sources that tell you enough information about it to answer questions A–D. Include a list of your sources (with links when possible) along with your answers.

12.2.2. Describing the Technology

  1. According to your sources, what is the purpose/use of the technology?
    • What problems was it designed to solve?

    • In what contexts is it or was it actually used?

    • Even if your sources focus on an error or misuse of technology, remember that all technology exists because someone thought it would be a good idea to make it. Don’t try to describe the “intent” of a bug or get into the intent behind misuse; describe the original intent of the technology itself.

  2. According to your sources, how does the technology use computation?
    • All computation makes use of data. What data is involved?

    • How does the technology process the data? What are the inputs and outputs? What happens in between? (Don’t worry about trying to describe the actual low-level steps of the algorithm involved, just the high level process.)

    • If you are going to describe a bug or unintended problem with a technology, be sure to describe how its input, output, or computation are affected.

    • If you cannot get specific about input, output, or computation, you might not have chosen a concrete enough topic, or your sources might be inadequate.

12.2.3. Describing the Impacts

  1. How is this use of computation beneficial and who benefits?
    • How do users of the technology benefit from it?

    • How does society as a whole benefit from the existence of the technology?

    • If you are describing a bug that has no benefit, focus on the benefit that a working system should have provided.

    • Even when technology is causing unacceptable harm, “nobody benefits” is not an adequate analysis. Think creatively about who wants the technology, even if you don’t think they should.

  2. How is this use of computation harmful and who is harmed?
    • What harm is there to the user?

    • What harm is there to people targeted by the technology?

    • What harm is there to people excluded from using the technology?

    • What harm is there to society?

    • If you are describing a bug, unintended harmful side effect, or intentional misuse of technology, this is where to get into to the nature and extent of the harm.

    • Even for a technology you want everybody to accept, “nobody is harmed” is not an adequate analysis. Think creatively about consequences that you wouldn’t otherwise have thought of.

The following pages will show you some example answers that analyze computing impacts.

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