When IT Goes Bad: the Perils of Bad Information in a Technological World
On 28 March 1979, in large part because of a faulty indicator light for relief valve, a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island created the most significant nuclear accident in this country. The technology was in place to avert this accident, yet because of bad information, operators were unable to control the reactor. In this course, we will examine cases where bad information, and the decision-making based on it, led to failures of otherwise robust technologies. Case studies will include the Great Boston Molasses Flood, the Thalidomide pharmaceutical disaster, and the 1954 crash of the BOAC Comet. We will discuss ways of identifying, obtaining, and valuing good information, and the social benefits of relying on good information to make decisions.
The Future is Now
What is the future of the planet and the humans on that planet, and what role will technology play in creating that future? In this course, we will focus on a few key technologies that are rapidly changing our world. What is the future of parenthood in a world where technologies such as IVF and genetic engineering are becoming increasingly accessible to the masses? Will it be a future of genetically perfected children? What about other kinds of modification to human beings, digital and otherwise? What is the future of genetically engineered food? How are new communication tools changing our patterns of communication and ourselves? Is '24/7' technology threatening our privacy? We will ask, more broadly, how and why are these technologies chosen by societies? Do we act-indeed, can we act--as individuals to control our destinies when technological change seems to threaten other human values, or do we need a collective solution? In other words, in a modern technological world, how much can we control our fates, either as individuals or as a society?
There are many 'Grand Challenges' currently facing the peoples of the world, including for example, universal access to clean water, securing cyberspace, making solar energy economical, and engineering better medicines. How can these challenges be addressed and solved in ways that truly benefit all of humanity? What roles do the natural sciences, the social sciences, and engineering play in their solution? This foundation seminar seeks to bring together students interested in various fields of study to contextualize the science and engineering principles underlying worldwide technical challenges as well as the central roles that economics, anthropology, and public policy play in solving them. We will together develop a better understanding of the challenges facing the world and how each of us can contribute, even in a small way, to their solution.
Data, Power, and Inequality
Almost all aspects of our contemporary lives are captured, cataloged, and recorded as data. Entities that have access to these data use them to shape our individual, social, and civic experiences, thereby exerting an immense amount of power on our lives. For example, data-powered algorithms are used to decide whether or not a defendant should get parole, or who should get a loan. Yet, individuals who are subject to data collection and data-based decision-making are largely powerless in the face of such decisions. Furthermore, these processes have disparate positive and negative impacts on different sections of society, mirroring existing power differentials. This course will introduce students both to critical thinking and practice in understanding how data-centric processes and practices can become instruments that reinforce and exacerbate inequality in society. Once we confront the ways in which data-based decisions both contribute to, and occur within systems of inequality, we will begin to identify relevant problems and solutions to contribute to a more equal, just society.