SC23: The Ethics of Supercomputing

By AJ Lauer

November 29, 2023

Why should HPC practitioners care about ethics? And, what are our ethics in HPC? These questions were central to a lively discussion at the SC23 Birds-of-a-Feather (BoF) session: With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility: Ethics in HPC.

The BoF was facilitated by Jay Lofstead and Elaine Raybourn, both from Sandia National Laboratory, and Jakob Luettgau, from the French Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation (INRIA).

The session started with a brief introduction to the history of ethics and HPC. Luettgau walked attendees through topics from the Enigma machine and other early computers that were used for weapons development to current uses of HPC, including research that influences policy and behavior. He discussed the ACM and IEEE Codes of Ethics and reminded attendees that in the event of a suspected breach of ethics, they can use reporting mechanisms through those organizations. 

Elaine Raybourn took the podium to deliver a talk, Practicing Responsible Computing and Developing an Ethical Mindset for HPC. She encouraged the HPC community to take a sociotechnical approach to development. Sociotechnical means considering both the social and the technological factors in any development. She said, “Look at the tech, its impact on society, and vice versa. Look at the world around you and make your work relevant that way.”

Raybourn recommended using Productivity and Sustainability Improvement Planning (PSIP) Progress Tracking Cards to discuss how a group might move toward ethical decision-making. PSIP is a software process improvement methodology that can be applied toward ethics to ensure a unified understanding of goals. 

Productivity and Sustainability Improvement Planning (PSIP) Progress Tracking Cards for use in ethical decision making. Click for larger view. (Source: Slide Deck from SC23 Birds-of-a-Feather (BoF) session: With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility: Ethics in HPC.)

Why do ethics matter?

One brave soul stood up and asked the room why ethics matter. He noted that unethical behavior by companies is rarely met with consequences – so why should individuals behave differently? A couple of successful cases against companies were brought up, including the case against Microsoft for violating open source licenses during the development of Copilot and the Blurred Lines case, which established that copying the style of an artist’s body of work can be considered copyright infringement.

The discussion continued with other reasons ethics matter:

  • Protection of the arts, such as the writers’ strike and fake AI art.
  • Intended and unintended consequences.
  • Understanding when to go fast and break things and when to go slow.
  • Experiencing your internal consequences.

In the case of LLMs, Lofstead said, “They didn’t ask if they should; they asked if they could (like in the movie Jurassic Park). We currently have an ethical framework that has allowed this to happen. We’re finally deciding if we WANT it to happen.”

Clyde Jones, who works at the intersection of HPC and the medical field, said he sees ethical concerns when handling data. Some software is considered a medical device and is regulated as such, but software engineers occasionally push off thinking about ethics, especially around data. Jones said, “Once data is in the pipeline, they just use it because they don’t know what to do with it,” and this can lead to making bad decisions such as erroneously associating race with certain illnesses.

What are our HPC ethics?

Conversations about how to manage ethics danced between the topics of individual responsibility and how to create community standards.

The biomedical field was repeatedly mentioned as an example of how to set, implement, and ensure ethical practices. Nurses and doctors have very specific guidelines they are expected to follow and can be penalized for non-compliance. It was suggested that the HPC community develop a set of guidelines. This recomnation was viewed as a huge task, as participants considered who would be responsible for setting guidelines, how to gauge what practices are essential vs. what could be overlooked, and who would ensure compliance.

Raybourn encouraged starting at the personal level while the larger issues were being determined. She told attendees to look at ethics from a systems perspective but also to break it into daily behaviors – or “bite-sized chunks” that may be easier to handle on the individual level.

Jakob Luettgau closed the session by inviting the HPC community to continue to explore these topics. He said, “Many people feel helpless. They don’t think their input will have an impact. We must broaden our perspective to get [other] communities to share. And that will help us understand how we can impact ethics in HPC.”

Outcomes

Anyone interested in continuing the conversation about ethics in HPC is welcome to join the newly created Slack channel. Please contact Jay Lofstead (gflofst(you know what goes here)sandia.gov) or Jakob Luettgau (jakob.luettgau(you know what goes here)inria.fr) to be invited to the channel. The BoF conveners will seek to host a full workshop at SC24. HPC community members interested in SC24 events or hosting a discussion at another conference should also reach out to Jay and Jakob.

Attendees were invited to submit papers to the 12th International Conference on Distributed, Ambient and Pervasive Interactions (DAPI 2024), an affiliated conference of HCII2024 (Human Computer Interaction International) parallel session. Session chairs noted that submissions about ethics need not be expert-level. They encourage thoughtful submissions with the goal of contributing to the written conversation about ethics in computing.

References:

E. M. Raybourn and K. Muollo, “Guidelines for Practicing Responsible Innovation in HPC: A Sociotechnical Approach.” Presented at the 11th International Conference on Distributed, Ambient, and Pervasive Interactions, DAPI 2022, Held as Part of the 25th HCI International Conference, HCII 2023, July 23 – July 28, 2023. SAND

Ethics in High-Performance Computing

Top Image Credits:
License: Creative Commons 3 – CC BY-SA 3.0
Attribution: Alpha Stock Images – http://alphastockimages.com/
Original Author: Nick Youngson – link to – http://www.nyphotographic.com/
Original Image: https://www.picpedia.org/handwriting/e/ethics.html


Dr. AJ Lauer helps science and technology leaders thrive both inside and outside of the workplace. She is an expert on HPC diversity and workforce development. Her company Thriving Ibis Leadership Solutions provides a tailored-to-you mix of workshops, coaching, and consulting to provide individual and team leadership development, and help build inclusive workplaces. AJ holds an EdD in Interdisciplinary Leadership from Creighton University, MS in Higher Education Administration from Florida International University, and BA in Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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