The writer, of Omaha, is a Unitarian Universalist minister and a moral math pioneer.
Twentieth-century developments in mathematics have created 21st-century tech concerns that deserve increased societal attention and more thoughtful ethical guidelines to bring forth a cohesive, productive and just future. A trendy new direction in math, dubbed “moral mathematics,” seeks to add wisdom and discernment to math-based ideas affecting human social behavior.
Several examples that warrant dialogue and examination could be found in the Oct. 13 World-Herald. For instance, the newspaper that day included a Washington Post article detailing how Russian disinformation agents have used online methods to influence real-world events through social media: It predicts likely political innovation which Russian operatives and others might use to manipulate various outcomes in upcoming U.S. elections and to otherwise create discontent among the populace.
In that day’s Living section, Molly Cavanaugh writes in her column that modern technology isn’t a parent’s best friend. “I’ve tried my hardest … to avoid being too much of a helicopter or lawnmower parent,” Cavanaugh writes. “However, this school year seems to be electronically compelling me to hover and attempt to clear the path for my (now fourth grade) son for the first time ever.”
In a movie preview, we read that in “Gemini Man,” Will Smith plays a 51-year-old version of a government assassin who faces off against a computer-generated version of his 24-year-old self. Smith says that cloning “ultimately pans out to be poison honey. It will be a reach that potentially comes back to bite humanity in ways we are not considering fully.”
World-Herald staff writer Reece Ristau writes about how Nebraska’s “Silicon Prairie” is having a powerful and hopefully productive impact on the local economy. “I have no idea what the data center world looks like in 10 years,” says Andrew Rainbolt, director of the Sarpy County Economic Development Corp., “but I don’t think our demand for the Internet or cloud computing is going to go away anytime soon.”
Each of these articles showcases issues explored under the moral math umbrella, the specific intent of which is to make social behavior more just, fair, caring, altruistic. Many such ideas have recently been collected into a chapter in a cutting-edge “Handbook of the Mathematics of the Arts and Sciences” (in press, Springer, 2020).
Like all tools, mathematics can be used for good or ill. These World-Herald examples show some of the worrisome aspects of this tool. Similarly, the Guardian recently carried an article in which Hannah Fry, associate professor of mathematics at University College London, calls for mathematicians and computer engineers to heed a Hippocrates oath similar to the one physicians honor. “First, do no harm.”
Says Fry: “We’ve got all these tech companies filled with very young, very inexperienced, often white guys who have lived in math departments and computer science departments. … They have never been asked to think about ethics, they have never been asked to consider how other people’s perspectives of life might be different to theirs, and ultimately these are the people who are designing the future for us.”
Though accurate, I wish to carry Fry’s point further. I first considered the ethics involved in mathematical/scientific decision-making in the early 1990s (about when Dolly was being cloned), at a Templeton-sponsored conference where a female representative of a major drug company shared advances her company was making in biogenetic engineering. She pointed out the total lack of any mandatory ethical oversight for this whole process. The drug companies themselves were creating such regulatory boards; they could see even then the need for ongoing ethical input.
Though unsure of the status of such ethics committees these days, I am sure of two things. First, we need ethical boards, and second, they need to include ordinary people, not just specialists. The ethical decisions of today will build tomorrow, and they will be far-reaching. J. Doe needs a voice in them.
- Mathematicians Have Discovered an Entirely New Way to Multiply Large Numbers – ScienceAlert
- S’wak to start teaching Science and Maths in English for Year 1 pupils – The Star Online
- #MathsWeek – Demand for DCU’s MSc in Financial Mathematics set to increase thanks to buoyant Irish economy – Dublin City University
- Students and faculty protest for math building replacement – Ubyssey Online
- GlaxoSmith Kline (GSK): Seeking AI and ML experts for data-driven drug discovery and development – Science Magazine
- Illinois Has 14 Newsweek Best STEM High Schools In 2019 – Patch.com
- Chika Ofili: 12-year-old Nigerian awarded for making mathematics easy to learn – Pulse Ghana
- The Mathematics of Malice: Why Hate Crime Stats Can’t Be Trusted – 5280 | The Denver Magazine
- Olney Junior High takes first place at TMSCA meet – Olney Enterprise
- Veteran mathematics teacher Ruth Moonesinghe announces retirement – Tiger Newspaper