Ask David Parnas

David, Parnas, a vocal opponent of the SDI (Star Wars) project, believes that ethical people should work on projects they think have unethical aspects. This way they might be able to have some influence on keeping things ethical and they have an obligation to inform themselves and the public of the risks and benefits of such projects.

Parnas, David L. "Software Aspects of Strategic Defense Systems", Comm. ACM, Vol. 28, No. 12, Dec. 1985, pp. 1326-1335.

From (99/08/18):

                        CPSR President Winograd
                        Presents Norbert Wiener
                            Award to Parnas

          The following remarks were made by CPSR President
          Terry Winograd, upon presentation of the first
          Norbert Wiener Award for Social and Professional
          Responsibility to Professor David Lorge Parnas.

Tonight we begin a new tradition for CPSR, presenting for the first time
the Norbert Wiener Award for Social and Professional Responsibility.  It
is especially fitting that we initiate it here at MIT, which was the
intellectual home to Norbert Wiener for more than forty years.

Wiener arrived at MIT in 1919 as an instructor, and during his long and
fruitful years here he was the originator of the field of cybernetics
and of many of the ideas that grew into the development of the computer.
His scientific achievements were many and varied, but more relevant to
us tonight, he also was a pioneer in looking at the social and political
implications of computing.  In his analysis and activities around social
concerns, he anticipated almost the entire program of CPSR by about
forty years.  If he were alive today, he would certainly be an active
and stimulating member of the organization.

As with CPSR, Wiener's concerns first led to action in the arena of
nuclear weapons and the danger they posed to humanity.  Shortly after
Hiroshima he began a long career of pointing out the dangers of nuclear
war, and of the role of scientists in developing ever more powerful
weapons of destruction.

As he said in his book The Human Use of Human Beings/fP:

      . . . the new industrial revolution is a two-edged sword.
      It may be used for the benefit of humanity, but only if
      humanity survives long enough to enter a period in which
      such benefit is possible.  It may also be used to destroy
      humanity, and if it is not used intelligently it can go very
      far in that direction.

As early as 1946, he announced that "I do not expect to publish any
future work of mine which may do damage in the hands of irresponsible
militarists," and he observed that ". . . the scientist ends by putting
unlimited powers in the hands of the people whom he is least inclined to
trust with their use.  It is perfectly clear also that to disseminate
information about a weapon in the present state of our civilization is
to make it practically certain that weapon will be used."

Also, like CPSR, he took a broader view of the social issues of
computing.  In a variety of areas, including the problems of automation
and employment, he explore the implications of the new technologies.  He
recognized the subtleties and difficulties of the issues in a way that
still makes thought-provoking reading.  He saw that the scientist had a
special and difficult responsibility:

      . . . even when the individual believes that science
      contributes to the human ends which he has at heart, his
      belief needs a continual scanning and re-evaluation which is
      only partly possible.  For the individual scientist, even
      the partial appraisal of the liaison between the man and the
      [historical] process requires an imaginative forward glance
      at history which is difficult, exacting, and only limitedly
      achievable. . . .  We must always exert the full strength of
      our imagination.

Finally, like CPSR, he recognized the importance of an educated public.
He devoted much of his energy to writing articles and books that would
make the technology understandable to a wide audience.  His books, The
Human Use of Human Beings and God and Golem, Inc., were among the
earliest works that opened a public discussion of computers and what
they could do.

He was especially concerned that there not be a mystification of the
possibilities for computers, fed by unrealistic optimism:

      Any machine constructed for the purpose of making decisions,
      if it does not possess the power of learning will be
      completely literal-minded.  Woe to us if we let it decide
      our conduct, unless we have previously examined the laws of
      its action and know fully that its conduct will be carried
      out on principles acceptable to us!  On the other hand, the
      machine like the djinee, which can learn and can make
      decisions on the basis of its learning, will in no way be
      obliged to make such decisions as we should have made, or
      will be acceptable to us.  For the man who is not aware of
      this, to throw the problem of his responsibility on the
      machine, whether it can learn or not, is to cast his
      responsibility to the winds, and to find it coming back
      seated on the whirlwind.

So we might think of Norbert Wiener as the patron saint of CPSR,
although I suspect he would be a bit uncomfortable with the religious

Tonight we are honoring a man who, like Wiener, might not fit the model
of sainthood but who, like Wiener, has served as a visible and inspiring
example of social responsibility: David Lorge Parnas.

David Parnas is Professor of Computer Science and Queen's University in
Kingston, Ontario.  He received Bachelors, Masters, and Ph.D. degrees
from the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon
University) and has taught at a number of prominent institutions in the
United States, Germany, and Canada.  His research has been extremely
influential in the field of software engineering, of which he can
rightfully be called a founder.  He was one of the pioneers in work on
structured programming, and his research still stands as a classic in
that area.

On the basis of his work on making programming more productive and
reliable, he was made head of the Software Engineering Research Section
and director of the project on Software Cost Reduction at the Naval
Research Laboratory, beginning in 1979.  His expertise made him a
natural choice to serve on the panel formed in 1985 to investigate the
feasibility of the computing system required for the Strategic Defense
Initiative ("Star Wars") program proposed by President Reagan.

I do not need to rehearse for this group the subsequent story (which
Professor Parnas elaborated in this remarks on the panel discussion on
ethics).  To summarize quickly, he attended one meeting of the panel
(now known as the Eastport Group) and recognized that the project was
ill-conceived and unworkable.

He raised his concerns with his colleagues on the panel, and although
they could not refute his arguments, they saw the program as an
opportunity to develop expanded research funding for computer science
and did not want to hinder that bonanza (in which their own institutions
would obviously share).  After trying to take his concerns to the
relevant government officials and failing to get their cooperation, he
went public with a carefully written and cogent series of articles
(later published in the Communications of the ACM and American
Scientist) which still stand as the basic argument against the
feasibility of SDI.

He was the instrumental participant in a series of public debates on the
SDI, the first and most significant of which was held here at MIT,
sponsored by the CPSR chapter.  The debates led to the gradual admission
by the program sponsors that it would not, as Reagan had promised, "make
nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete," but was at best a conventional
anti-ballistic-missile defense, with all of the strategic difficulties
and shortcomings such defenses raise.  Professor Parnas also testified
for CPSR to a subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee
examining the SDI program.  His work was a major factor in the gradual
disillusionment with Star Wars among the public and policymakers.

Like Norbert Wiener, David Parnas has served as an example of social
responsibility in many ways: in his own personal example of ethical and
professional responsibility in refusing to go along with the work of the
panel and profit from the opportunity; in his concern with public
education in his writings and public appearances; and in his willingness
to seek political action for the public interest.  There could not be a
more suitable recipient for our first award.

In concluding, I would like to return to -- and complete -- an earlier
quotation of Wiener's:

      . . . the new industrial revolution is a two-edged sword.
      It may be used for the benefit of humanity. . . .  It may
      also be used to destroy humanity. . . .  There are, however,
      hopeful signs on the horizon. . . .  There are many dangers
      still ahead, but the roots of good will are there.

David Parnas stands as an example that the roots of good will are there,
and that on them we can grow lives of action and responsibility.  It is
an honor to present him with the first Norbert Wiener Award for Social
and Professional Responsibility.

Last updated 97/04/30
© H. Rex Hartson, 1995