COMPUTING AND AI: HUMANISTIC PERSPECTIVES FROM MIT
Writing | Thomas Levenson
"Computation and its applications in fields that directly affect society cannot be an unexamined good. Professional science and technology writers are a crucial resource for the mission of SCC, and they need to be embedded within its research apparatus."
— Thomas Levenson, MIT Professor of Science Writing
Thomas Levenson is professor of science writing in Comparative Media Studies/Writing. He is the author of six books, including the forthcoming Money for Nothing, (2020), Hunt for Vulcan (2015) Newton and the Counterfeiter (2009) and Einstein in Berlin (2003). He has also produced, directed, written, and/or executive-produced more than a dozen science documentaries, most notably the PBS mini-series Origins (2004) and the “Back to the Beginning” episode in that series, for which he received the 2005 National Academies Communication Award and the Foundation for the Future Walter P. Kistler Prize for best science documentary.
Q: What are some examples of domain knowledge, perspectives, and methods from your field that should be integrated into the research and curriculum of the Schwarzman College of Computing (SCC) and why?
There is an old adage that writing is the process of learning what one actually thinks about anything. That’s an almost-cliché that has the virtue of being true. Writing — here, writing for a public beyond a defined domain — is a vital part of the toolkit for anyone who wants to understand what they’re doing when they study computation and its applications to human well-being.
The formal integration of writing into the instruction and investigations of the SCC will thus be essential. It can take several forms.
First, explicit writing instruction will help SCC students master material and consider the societal implications of technical work. Writing is a formalized method of critical thinking (a claim that has been tested across a number of scientific domains). Requiring students to write in plain language about what they are doing in a technical project — and why — will bring the concepts behind the task to the fore.
At the same time, and crucially for the SCC, that “why” question introduces the issue of the afterlife of any given idea in a broader context. The simple act of demanding a design and or project memo aimed at non-specialists will go a long way to making sure students achieve the mind-and-hand mastery that is MIT’s distinctive ethos. A more intricate intertwining of writing and the development of the ideas in coursework would also provide conceptual depth that purely technical mastery cannot offer. As the saying goes: Engineers who can’t write work for those who can.
"An intertwining of writing and the development of the ideas in coursework will provide conceptual depth that purely technical mastery cannot offer."
Secondly, the fact that computation is now vital to just about any field of inquiry means that computing and other domains must make themselves intelligible across knowledge boundaries. That leads to the challenge: Until those versed in one mode of thought understand what they do or do not grasp about the contributions, knowledge, and questions of others, cross-purposes reign. The way to address this challenge is to write — not in jargon, but in language that can be understood by those who are technically competent but not in your field. This is writing to a public, if not the public at large, and training in doing so is essential if SCC is to realize its promise of embedding computing in the full range of knowledge-making.
Last: Computation and its applications in fields that directly affect society cannot be an unexamined good. Professional science and technology writers are a crucial resource for the mission of SCC, and they need to be embedded within its research apparatus. Their importance runs in two directions. First, it’s one of the incitements that led to the creation of SCC that computation is so ubiquitous now that MIT has an obligation to transform its study and applications. That means that we expect the world to change because of what we do, and in any democratic society, such consequences require the informed consent of the public; science journalists have traditionally served as the intermediaries through which the news of such advances reaches society.
At the same time, as decades of science journalism has confirmed, any approach that treats the public as passive receivers fails — both in informing the public and in providing a valid and critical account of science. What the SCoC will do is itself something to observe and interpret. It’s extremely hard to both do the leading-edge work and address its implications.
Critical inquiry isn’t always comfortable — but if the SCC is going to achieve its promise as a wellspring of solutions to human problems, self-examination is required. Embedding top-flight and intellectually independent writers for the public within the SCC would institutionalize a capacity to reflect on the meaning of the work to come.
NASA image; from the Hubble Telescope
"The fact that it’s now possible to ask a question of nearly any facet of experience and begin to answer it almost immediately, makes this an absolutely fascinating time to report on how humankind finds out about the world and our place within it."
Q: What are some of the exciting, meaningful opportunities that advanced computing is making possible in your field?
There is a sense in which the significance of computation to writing about science is pretty much the importance of water to a fish; it is the medium through which we move, implicated in everything we do. But looking a little more closely, there are plenty of new possibilities.
The first is in what is called “data journalism” — a broad term referring to a combination of the emergence of large collections of publicly accessible data and new tools for analyzing and visualizing such troves. The work that comes out of such reporting is giving the news-consuming public an experience of information that is very different from conventional narrative. This radical reshaping of what it means to tell a true story about the world is very much a development to be studied.
The second is one that is becoming familiar across all the humanities and social sciences. An unprecedented amount of the world can be reached from our desktops, meaning most of us exist now in two worlds: one analog, one digital.
The challenge and hence the opportunity for science writing lies in how to navigate this digital information environment — where not all is as it seems, yet motives, interests, and ethics matter as much as they do offline. But the fact that it’s now possible to ask a question of nearly any facet of experience and begin to answer it almost immediately, makes this an absolutely fascinating time to report on how humankind finds out about the world and our place within it.
Books by Thomas Levenson:
Ice Time: Climate Science and Life on Earth (1989)
Measure for Measure: A Musical History of Science (1994)
Einstein in Berlin (2003)
Newton and the Counterfeiter (2009)
The Hunt for Vulcan:...And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe (2016)
Series prepared by SHASS Communications
Office of Dean Melissa Nobles
Series Editor and Designer: Emily Hiestand
Series Co-Editor: Kathryn O'Neill
Published 22 September 2019