Thursday, June 2, 2016

Worldwide War and Conflict (Brought to you by Silicon Valley)

Are high tech workers and communities adequately owning up to their responsibility in providing ever more lethal generations of weaponry and other war materiel?

Image from PC World: "DARPA, SRC pony up
$194 million to fund chip research"
I've been attentive to the predicament of technologists involved in providing the machines of modern war since I wrote about the Chicago scientists who played such a large role in creating nuclear weapons. (See Unfinished Business in Chicago (Nuclear disarmament, that is))

When I worked in the field of patent licensing about a decade ago, I had a crash course in the structure of the semiconductor industry, and a peek into how many semiconductors find application in the military field.  If I needed any reminder of this fact, I got it when the Secretary of Defense payed a high-profile visit to California a few weeks ago: "Pentagon Turns to Silicon Valley for Edge in Artificial Intelligence."

When we think about high-tech weapons, we often think of big stuff like fighter jets and drones. But none of today's weapons are possible without the semiconductors and software that make them smart.

In the California defense industry, Southern California has been where the military aerospace comes together. But all those Silicon Valley chip and software engineers in Northern California are the key link.

(I don't know how many people living in California's 17th congressional district, the Silicon Valley area represented by Mike Honda, think of themselves as dependent on the defense industry . . . . )

It's really a fascinating dilemma. "Hey, I just make this little part of the thing .... " The protestations of scientists involved in napalm production come to mind: "Hey, I just work in the quality control department .... " (See American Fire: Still Spreading, Still Inextinguishable)

High tech weaponry (last year's model).
There are some people inside the technology field who are starting to ask questions about engineers' involvement in supporting innovations in killing. Notably, the International Committee for Robot Arms Control consists of computer scientists, engineers, artificial intelligence experts, roboticists and professionals from related disciplines who have called for "a ban on the development and deployment of weapon systems in which the decision to apply violent force is made autonomously." (See also "UC Berkeley Professor Leads Call for Ban on Autonomous Weapons," interview of Stuart Russell by Michael Krasny, Forum on KQED, August 5, 2015. )

Autonomous weapons are the cutting edge. What would happen if people working in the tech industry said that they wanted to give all military applications a wide berth? What if they quit the weapons business cold turkey?

"Social responsibility" and "ethics" is a topic that appears to be just beginning to gain traction within the EE community. I note that an annual "humanitarian" conference associated with IEEE will take place again in October, 2016, in Seattle. (You can get a sense of the proceedings from the Global Humanitarian Technology Conference (GHTC) 2015 program book.)

Right now, "humanitarian" in the EE field seems to be associated principally with affirmative efforts -- providing energy, health, communications, education, aid and similar benefits. But what about ceasing to contribute to violence?

Can we see a clear path to enabling EEs to choose to work in weapons-free zones?

Related posts

In four hundred and thirty-five Congressional districts, there is an inseparable relationship between campaign funding for Congressional races and the military contractors. How do we push back?

(See IT'S A LOCK: Why the US Can't Break Its Addiction to War)

Met Lab scientists had a rude awakening: "We're interested in your technology, not your political advice." As one of the Met Lab scientists said, "I might as well have thrown those recommendations [about abstaining from using the bomb] into Lake Michigan."

(See Unfinished Business in Chicago (Nuclear disarmament, that is))

"Because of the intensified division of labor," the narrator explains, "many technicians and scientists can no longer recognize the contribution the have made to weapons of destruction." "Our department extracts lareic, oleic, and naptha acids . . . . "  "I'm a chemist. What should I do? If I develop a substance, it can be good for humanity . . . ."  "Besides napalm, Dow Chemical produces 800 other products . . . ." Does this familiar to you?

(See American Fire: Still Spreading, Still Inextinguishable