CS009: Computers and Human Values (Fall 2003)
Department of Computer Science, Brown University
Final Exam -- December 15, 2003 -- Blumberg


Introduction: There are two parts to this exam. The first asks you to identify several passages, each drawn from the texts we've read and discussed this semester. The second asks you to write an essay interpreting and integrating ideas and perspectives from several of those texts. The purpose of the exam is to have you : 1) reflect on the entire semester's work; 2)demonstrate your understanding of the texts; and 3) offer your own perspective on some of the many questions and issues we've discussed this semester.

Part I: Identification and Explication (1 hour)

For any five (5) of the quotations given below, identify the author who wrote it, and the text in which it appears. Then briefly explain whether/how it represents or is indicative of particular positions taken or arguments made by the author. Your answer needn't be longer than a paragraph or two, but it should make clear the significance (or insignificance) of the passage by relating it to one or more of the major themes in the text and/or the Unit of the course in which the text was assigned. (A complete list of assigned texts can be found at the end of this exam.)

  1. In general, we can sum up things by saying that if we are humane, kindly, benevolent people, we want as many people as possible, now and in the future to be as happy as possible.

  2. The voices that speak the cyborg do not speak as one, and the stories they tell are very different from the narratives that Wiener struggled to authorize.

  3. When Jefferson was elected, only 12 percent of Americans had what could be called a "boss". The word did not even enter common usage until the 1830s. By 1860, 40 percent of free Americans had a boss. And by the time Woodrow Wilson left the White House in 1920, fully 87 percent of all wage earners were working for a corporation.

  4. Electronic commerce (EC) does seem to contribute to cultural imperialism. Consider the following example. For EC to be successful, there must be certain uniform global regulations, or at least practices. In the West, we are rather wedded to the notion of intellectual property, but this is not the case worldwide.

  5. Within the life of the generation now in control of affairs, persuasion has become a self-conscious art and a regular organ of popular government. None of us begins to understand the consequences, but it is no daring prophecy to say that the knowledge of how to create consent will alter every political calculation and modify every political premise. Under the impact of propaganda, not necessarily in the sinister meaning of the word alone, the old constants of our thinking have become variables.

  6. Imagine a sophisticated virtual reality technology that is capable of deceiving its user that they are living through real experiences. By hooking our aged grandparents up to this device we could convince them that they were at the center of a lively social set, attending numerous soirees, ballroom dances, even downhill skiing excursions, when in reality they were confined to bed in a drab room in a nursing home, with little human contact.

  7. These incentive-based justifications have intuitive appeal, but in practice it is not so easy to determine which intellectual property regime will maximize society's wealth.

  8. The decisive difference between tools and machines is perhaps best illustrated by the apparently endless discussion of whether man should be "adjusted" to the machine or the machines should be adjusted to the "nature" of man. We mentioned in the first chapter the chief reason why such a discussion must be sterile: if the human condition consists in man's being a conditioned being for whom everything, given or man-made, immediately becomes a condition of his further existence, then man "adjusted" himself to an environment of machines the moment he designed them.

  9. From the inside, robots will indisputably be machines, acting according to mechanical principles, however elaborately layered. Only on the outside, where they can be appreciated as a whole, will the impression of intelligence emerge. A human brain, too, does not exhibit the intelligence under a neurobiologist's microscope that it does participating in a lively conversation.

  10. An emerging view is that the First Amendment to the Constitution requires government to respect consumer sovereignty. Indeed the First Amendment is often treated as if it incorporates the economic ideal -- as if it is based on the view, associated with Bill Gates and many others, that consumer choice is what the system of communications is all about.

  11. Of course, time and circumstances are unlikely to make a grounded decision, in Jim's case at least, possible. It might not even be decent. Instead of thinking in a rational and systematic way either about utilities or about the value of human life, the relevance of the people at risk being present, and so forth, the presence of the people at risk might just have its effect. The significance of the immediate should not be underestimated.

Part II: Essay (2 hours)

Each of the following topics asks you to consider the works of several authors, and to synthesize their perspectives and your own into a persuasive essay. Choose one (1) of the topics, and write an essay that communicates your thoughts as clearly as possible, while drawing on specific examples from the texts we've read this semester to support your arguments and explanations. Please know that none of the topics have been formulated to elicit a "right" view or response, and your essay will be evaluated based on the quality, coherence and inspiration of your insights and arguments.

  1. Experience and Value:

    In his article, "The march of the robot dogs," Robert Sparrow argues that the production of robot "companions" is foolish at best, and quite possibly unethical. At the heart of his essay is a section entitled "the ethics of ersatz companions," in which he argues that the value of our psychological and emotional responses to an "other" depends on the "appropriateness" of the object of those responses. By analogy, he notes that we do not consider (romantic) love to be worthy of the name unless it is directed at an appropriate object (in our case, a human being). He writes:

    "Indeed to describe these emotions, attitudes and relationships, as directed at the wrong objects in such cases is already to concede more than is perhaps warranted. Ideas about their proper object are already built into what it means to have various attitudes. So, for instance, 'love' directed towards the wrong object may not even be love at all. It may be more appropriately described as infatuation or obsession." (314)

    To actively promote or substitute the sorts of experiences that would be characteristic of our relationships with robot companions, in place of the sorts of "real" experiences characteristic of our relationships with what he terms "appropriate objects" would be unethical, according to Sparrow.

    Several of the other writers we've read this semester offer views and visions that bear on Sparrow's claims; some of these authors might take issue with Sparrow's argument while others might agree. Choose two (2) of the authors we've read this semester whose works you think have something important to say about the issue of valuing our experience(s) in the face of technological developments. In a brief essay, that interprets each of their views and presents your own, propose and discuss Sparrow's argument(s) about experience, simulation, and value.

  2. Real and Virtual:

    The history of science is full of distinctions that once seemed precise and accurate but which, with the passage of time and the growth of knowledge, have come to be regarded as imprecise and inaccurate (i.e. false). Perhaps the most famous case comes from chemistry. It was once thought that certain compounds were made only by living things, while others were produced by non-living processes or synthesized by humans in the laboratory; the former were called the "organic" and the latter "inorganic" compounds. Until Wohler's famous paper, "On the Artificial Production of Urea," this was considered a hard and fast distinction. Today, while we acknowledge the usefulness of the distinction (i.e. organic substances contain hydrogen and carbon, while inorganics don't), we don't regard the distinction the way people did before Wohler's finding.

    With the rapid rise of computers has come a new awareness of simulation and virtual experiences and interactions. Yet most of us continue to live our lives perfectly able to speak about the differences between real and virtual experiences, and generally able to distinguish the two without difficulty. But we might wonder whether the distinction between the real and the virtual is one that, like that between organic and inorganic compounds, will in time become blurry and no longer signify what we think it signifies today.

    Choose two (2) of the authors we've read this semester whose works you think have something to say about the nature of the real-virtual distinction. In a brief essay that interprets each of their views and presents your own, discuss the future of the distinction between the real and the virtual.

  3. Evaluating Technological Change:

    From the beginning of our discussions in "Computers and Human Values" we have raised questions about whether the advent of computers, and especially the recent spread of computer networks, has fundamentally altered the landscape of debate in the realms of epistemology, politics and/or ethics; or whether, for all the technical vocabulary and technological hype, the terms and distinctions provided by traditional (i.e. pre-computer) theories and debates remain adequate for discussions of who we are, what we should care about, and what we should do. One difficulty in answering such questions is that we don't have the sort of historical perspective (e.g. a century's distance) that might help us to evaluate the significance of the technological changes we have lived (and are living) through. Nevertheless, we might try to formulate criteria for evaluating the significance of these changes.

    Many of the authors we've studied this semester seem to offer visions and arguments about the impact that new technologies on traditional issues concerning humanity, politics and ethics. Choose two (2) of these authors, whose works you think present ways of evaluating and measuring the significance of technological change on traditional questions, issues or debates. In a brief essay that interprets each of their views and presents your own, discuss how we should evaluate the personal, cultural and/or political significance of technological change

CS9 Required Texts (Fall 2003):

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© 2003 Roger B. Blumberg