COMPUTING AND AI: HUMANISTIC PERSPECTIVES FROM MIT
Political Science | Faculty of the Department
"The advance of computation gives rise to a number of conceptual and normative questions that are political, rather than ethical, in character. Political science and theory have a significant role in addressing such questions as: How do major players in the technology sector seek to legitimate their authority to make decisions that affect us all? And where should that authority actually reside in a democratic polity?"
Q: What are some examples of domain knowledge, perspectives, and methods from political science that should be integrated into the research and curriculum of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing (SCC) and why?
As computing transforms countless societal domains — including ethical norms, the regulatory environment, human rights, international cooperation, and the distribution of wealth and power in society — political scientists investigate the significance and impact of these ongoing changes.
As a discipline, political science has been a major contributor to the computational revolution in areas such as natural language processing, text analysis, network analysis, and the analysis of “big data." But the field also focuses on explaining the broader context in which data are constructed and analyzed — a burgeoning field one might call the “social science of computation.”
Studying the institutions and processes that generate data provides perspectives that are crucial for the effective and responsible use of data science. After all, data are socially and politically constructed; the predictions arising from artificial intelligence and machine learning are inexorably shaped by the processes that generated the underlying data. To be leaders in the application of computational techniques for the betterment of the nation and the world, the Institute’s researchers and students must also have a firm grasp of the deep significance of the data they analyze and a rich understanding of the implications of their findings.
Top Row, L to R; Andrea Louise Campbell, Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science; In Song Kim, Class of 1956 Career Development Associate Professor of Political Science; Rich Nielsen, Associate Professor of Political Science; David Singer, Department Head, and Professor of Political Science. Lower Row, L to R: Charles Stewart III, Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science; Lily L. Tsai, Ford Professor of Political Science; Teppei Yamamoto, Associate Professor of Political Science; Bernardo Zacka, Assistant Professor of Political Science
"As a discipline, political science has been a major contributor to the computational revolution in areas such as natural language processing, text analysis, network analysis, and the analysis of 'big data.' The field also focuses on explaining the broader context in which data are constructed and analyzed — a burgeoning field one might call the 'social science of computation.'"
By working with students and researchers in other technical fields, political science has much to offer to ensure that computational research is socially aware, especially when it comes to interactions with governing institutions, the relations between nations, and human rights.
In addition to studying the societal and ethical implications of computation and artificial intelligence, one must also study the politics, which affect how computational advances are received and regulated. Just as different countries adapted differently to markets and capitalism, so too will their responses to computation vary depending on their political institutions, histories, and ruling ideologies. These factors will play a consequential role in shaping the future of computation.
Politics will also be transformed by computation. Already MIT political scientists are studying how automation changes the nature of work, how issues of cybersecurity are changing international relations, and how the availability of massive voter files alters political campaigns. As computational methods develop and more comprehensive datasets are amassed, a range of topics that political scientists have studied for decades will become relevant to those whose primary focus is computing.
While understanding the social context of computing often takes the form of study and research in ethics and moral philosophy, it is crucial to note that the advance of computation gives rise to conceptual and normative questions that are political, rather than ethical, in character. We see political science and political theory as having a significant role in addressing such questions as: How should we understand the new forms of power embodied in large-scale computation platforms? How do major players in the technology sector seek to legitimate their authority to make decisions that affect us all? And where should that authority actually reside in a democratic polity?
Jordan Isler, '19, Aerospace Engineering and Political Science major; class in Political Theory
Incorporate the perspectives of political science to ensure that computational research is socially aware, especially with issues involving governing institutions, the relations between nations, and human rights.
"Computation and artificial intelligence are facilitating new discoveries in virtually every area of political science: persuasion, legislation, international trade, warfare, terrorism, elections, corruption and accountability, and social bias in algorithms, to name a few."
Such questions are political in character and cannot be resolved though moral philosophy. They pertain to theories of power, ideology, and legitimacy that have a long pedigree in political theory and political science, and that new developments in computation invite us to revisit in novel ways.
Thus, political science is central to the mission of the SCC. Our research applies computation to some of the most pressing problems facing society. It also looks beyond ethics to illuminate the politics of computation. When focused on the inputs of computation, our research emphasizes the fact that data are not “neutral,” but rather are formed through socio-political processes. When aimed at the outputs of computation, our research reveals how the spread of computation is changing our political life.
Q: What are some of the exciting, meaningful opportunities that advanced computing is making possible in your field?
Computation and artificial intelligence are facilitating new discoveries in virtually every area of political science: persuasion, legislation, international trade, warfare, terrorism, elections, corruption and accountability, and social bias in algorithms, to name a few. Along with developments in sister disciplines, this trend in political science marks the growth of “computational social science.”
The advent of computational social science coincides with a move in our department toward a lab model of research, reflected in the MIT Governance Lab, the Political Methodology Lab, and the MIT Election Data and Science Lab. Advanced computing capacity will facilitate the work of these labs and permit the extension of the lab model to other clusters of faculty and students who otherwise might not have the infrastructure to undertake ambitious, computationally intensive research projects.
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Published 22 September 2019