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 http://snyside.sunnyside.com/dox/cpsr/wiener-speech.html (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 metaphor. 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