SC22 Proceedings

The International Conference for High Performance Computing, Networking, Storage, and Analysis

Birds of a Feather Archive

Ethics in HPC

Authors: Jakob Luettgau (University of Tennessee), Margaret Lawson (University of Illinois, Sandia National Laboratories), Jay Lofstead (Sandia National Laboratories)

Abstract: This follow-up to the broadly attended SC19 and SC21 BoFs will expand the conversation related to ethical considerations in the field of HPC and its role in shaping society. The BoF is highly interactive and aims to be an exchange for the community to discuss and relate ethical behavior and societal norms to the design of HPC solutions and autonomous/intelligent systems, for example, so that they do not intentionally perpetuate global inequality. By furthering this dialogue, we can work to ensure the HPC community is advancing its commitment to technology for the benefit of all of humanity.

Long Description: Ethical concerns in science can be traced back for centuries. The acceleration of innovation and an increasing impact of HPC on daily life, however, make it more important than ever to have these discussions. The goal of this BoF is to foster a community-wide discussion on ethics in HPC on issues such as what responsibilities we have as practitioners in the field and how best to ensure that ethical concerns are considered in the development and implementation of HPC applications. The BoF deliberately does not restrict or proscribe particular areas of discussion. However, the following provides suggestions for possible topics.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, HPC found itself in the spotlight of multiple prominent controversies: One example was the potentially exclusive access to HPC supported insights for treatments or vaccines. Another was it’s role in advisory tools for policymakers to inform shelter in place orders, potentially conflicting with existing legislation protecting data privacy or freedom of speech. The spectrum of compromises found by different organizations, nations, and regions highlights how sensitive to cultural context ethical judgments are.

HPC as a widely applied computational tool is ethically neutral, although some applications can rest in gray areas, such as it’s use in resource exploration, the maintenance of nuclear arsenals, or mining of personal information for targeted ads or mass surveillance. In addition, HPC being a promoter of open source software imposes few restrictions to be leveraged for clearly unethical ends such as engineering an effective disinformation campaign or designing an optimally destructive pathogen. As a technology that can be abused, we must consider what, if anything, the community should do to ward against this.

On a societal level HPC may intensify economic disparity as illustrated by the example that barely 1% of Top500 supercomputing systems reside in South America and Africa, despite being home to approximately 20% of the world’s population. Just as nations use HPC to increase national productivity and protect their citizen’s welfare, businesses use HPC to manifest a competitive advantage.

We should also consider whether HPC is perpetuating inequality. Women and people of color remain greatly underrepresented also within HPC communities, perhaps this lack of diversity is an inhibitor to the field.

The environmental impact of HPC is another matter of importance, considering that the Top 4 supercomputers already consume 60MW in electricity, the equivalent of 50,000 American households. This number, represents only a small fraction of the environmental footprint of HPC, as is particularly important relative to climate change.

With many workloads incorporating machine learning directly affecting people’s lives, participants may wish to address some of the ethical issues raised by HPC enabled ML/AI. This includes the impact a new generation of automation capabilities might impose on labor forces and society, the risks of amplifying bias, or the application in machines that kill.

This BoF hopes to discuss issues such as these, and to consider what values we as a community should be promoting and how best to do so.


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