By Nicole Capozziello
Published April 20, 2021
When senior Alex Liu used to watch movies where AI took over the world or algorithms determined future criminals, he dismissed it as the stuff of science fiction.
The negative impacts of computer science topics like algorithms, machine learning, and big data just seemed so far from his own life, and the classroom.
But in the summer of 2020, all of that changed when Liu saw the popular documentary The Social Dilemma.
“As I began to learn how real and pervasive the effects of computing on society could be, I also noticed how much it affected my own life,” says Liu. “Scenes in the documentary like getting sucked down a YouTube rabbit hole and worrying about your image on social media were especially powerful because I have personally experienced all of this. The biggest gut punch was when I realized that my academic interests were the very technologies that enabled these behaviors.”
As Liu wrestled with the industry’s power to shape society and the role that computer scientists like himself played, he began talking to others – professors, classmates from the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, and friends from other departments – and found that they shared some of his questions and interests.
Liu decided to start the Society and Computing Club (SoCo), which is dedicated to examining the implications of computing on society at large.
Since their launch in February of 2021, SoCo has attracted around 60 members, with about a dozen coming from outside of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. For Liu, it’s been essential that the club be interdisciplinary, in terms of student involvement as well as the faculty speakers they bring in for talks and events.
Fittingly, SoCo’s first event was a showing and discussion of The Social Dilemma, which itself has been criticized as being symptomatic of a major issue in the tech industry: erasing the voices of women and people of color, who have long been raising alarms around social platforms worsening existing inequalities.
The group also hosts game nights, discussions of other documentaries, and panels and talks by scholars from departments across UB, including philosophy, computer science, communications and social work.
The club immediately piqued the interest of Macy McDonald, a PhD candidate in the English department.
“The Data Revolution has and will continue to change our society as thoroughly as the Industrial Revolution did. We'll never fully understand the social, economic, and technological shifts caused by computing if we study them from single disciplines,” says McDonald, who presented a talk titled “Algorithms as Allegories.” McDonald has enjoyed the opportunity to connect with other students on this topic.
Atri Rudra, a professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering and a faculty mentor for the club, acknowledges that computing has changed a lot since his undergraduate work years ago. While he sees it as imperative for researchers to continue to do work at the intersection of society and computing, he says it is even more important to educate students.
Rudra thinks SoCo helps meet what he believes should be a central, long-term goal of the field: producing computing professionals who understand and use responsible computing when practicing their profession.
“It is no longer enough to think of computing systems as isolated systems, and say ‘but thinking about societal implications is not my job.’ We need to consider the wider socio-technical systems in which the computing systems operate,” says Rudra, who has also spearheaded efforts at UB to bring ethics into the computer science curriculum.
Kenny Joseph, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering and a faculty mentor for the club, sees the ways that the club is already helping students who truly want to make a positive impact. “I am incredibly impressed with Alex's and the other core club members’ ability to acknowledge the industry’s complexity while still learning about the ways in which this technology is built. It gives me great hope that this next generation of computer scientists and engineers will be able to push us all forward in a positive direction.”
While Liu is a senior in the department, and will be moving onto a PhD program in Information at the University of Michigan in the fall, starting the club felt too important to him not to do it. “I actually submitted the charter I wrote for the club as a part of my PhD application package,” says Liu, who’s graduate research will focus on topics at the intersection of digital technologies and society, combining his interests in starting SoCo with the practical research knowledge he’s built throughout his undergraduate career.
Ultimately, Liu sees this work as moving beyond the classroom and the field, and situated more broadly in engaged citizenship. In the club charter he writes, “In an internet of influential flat-earth theories and climate change denial, where do we even begin to have the discussion on climate change? It is becoming increasingly clear that each and every broad societal problem we care about is at the risk of being bent, polarized, and sensationalized as a result of these platforms . . . Against this backdrop, we must ask if the 21st century citizen has the proper tools to participate in an informed democracy.”
“As an engineer, I want to learn how I can create technologies responsibly and ethically in my future career,” says Liu. “As a citizen, I want to understand the effects of computing on democracy, mental health, privacy, and other aspects of society.”
Joseph says, “Building these tools will be hard work, because it requires centering the voices of people that have been historically and structurally excluded from the construction of technology. It also requires a deeply interdisciplinary effort, one that touches all corners of UB. Finally, it requires accepting that without this hard work, what you build may very well do more harm than good.”