letters to the editor
free speech for algorithms?
In “Regulating the Information Gatekeepers” (Nov. 2010), Patrick Vogl and Michael Barrett said a counterargu- ment against the regulation
of search-engine bias is that “Search
results are free speech and therefore
cannot be regulated.” While I have
no quarrel as to whether this claim is
true, I’m astounded that anyone could
seriously make such a counterargument—or any judge accept it.
Search results are the output of an
algorithm. I was unaware the field of
artificial intelligence had advanced to
the point that we must now consider
granting algorithms the right of free
speech. To illustrate such absurdity,
suppose I was clever enough to have
devised an algorithm that could crawl
the Web and produce opinionated articles, rather than search results, as its
output. Would anyone seriously suggest the resulting articles be granted
all the constitutional protections afforded the works of a human author?
Taking the analogy further, suppose,
too, my algorithm produced something equivalent to shouting “Fire!”
in a crowded theater. Or, further still,
perhaps it eventually produced something genuinely treasonous.
If we accept the idea that the output of an algorithm can be protected
under the right of free speech, then
we ought also to accept the idea
that it is subject to the same limitations we place on truly unfettered
free speech in a civilized society. But
who would we go after when these
limitations are exceeded? I may have
created the algorithm, but I’m not
responsible for the input it found
that actually produced the offensive
output. Who’s guilty? Me? The algorithm? (Put the algorithm on trial?)
The machine that executed the algorithm? How about those responsible
for the input that algorithmically produced the output?
Unless humans intervene to mod-
ify the output of algorithms produc-
absurd. At least until artificial intel-
ligence has advanced to where ma-
chines must indeed be granted the
same rights we grant our fellow hu-
Neate touches a nerve concerning the
increasingly complex relationship between
humans and material technologies in
society. Accountability in these socio-material settings is challenging for judge
and regulator alike. In the 2003 case
of SearchKing vs. Google Technology, a
U.S. District Court noted the ambiguity of
deciding whether PageRank is mechanical
and objective or subjective, ruling that
PageRank represents constitutionally
protected opinions. Whether search
results are indeed free speech remains
controversial, meaning we can expect the
debate to continue.
Patrick Vogl and Michael Barrett,
science has 1,000 Legs
It’s great to reflect on the foundations
of science in Communications, as in
Tony Hey’s comment “Science Has
Four Legs” (Dec. 2010) and Moshe Y.
Vardi’s Editor’s Letter “Science Has
Only Two Legs” (Sept. 2010), but also
how the philosophy of science sheds
light on questions involving the number of legs in a natural science.
Willard Van Orman Quine’s 1951
paper “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”
convincingly argued that the attempt
to distinguish experiment from theory fails in modern science because
every observation is so theory-laden;
for example, as a result of a Large
Hadron Collider experiment, scientists will not perceive, say, muons or
other particles, but rather some visual
input originating from the computer
screen displaying experimental data.
The interpretation of this perception
depends on the validity of many nonempirical factors, including physics
theories and methods.
With computation, even more factors are needed, including the correctness of hardware design and the
validity of the software packages being used, as argued by Nick Barnes
in his comment “Release the Code”
(Dec. 2010) concerning Dennis Mc-Cafferty’s news story “Should Code Be
Released?” (Oct. 2010).
For such a set of scientific assump-
tions, Thomas S. Kuhn coined the
term “paradigm” in his 1962 book The
Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Imre
Lakatos later evolved the concept into
the notion of “research program” in
his 1970 paper “Falsification and the
Methodology of Scientific Research
In this light, neither the two-leg nor
the four-leg hypothesis is convincing.
Citing the leg metaphor at all, science
is perhaps more accurately viewed as
Wolf siberski, hannover, Germany
certify software Professionals
and their Work
As a programmer for the past 40
years, I wholeheartedly support David L. Parnas’s Viewpoint “Risks of
Undisciplined Development” (Oct.
2010) concerning the lack of discipline in programming projects.
We could be sitting on a time bomb
and should take immediate action
to prevent potential catastrophic
consequences of the carelessness of
software professionals. I agree with
Parnas that undisciplined software
development must be curbed.
I began with structured programming and moved on to objects and
now to Web programming and find
that software is a mess today. When
I travel on a plane, I hope its embedded software does not execute some
untested loop in some exotic function never previously recognized or
documented. When I conduct an
online banking transaction, I likewise hope nothing goes wrong.
See the Web site “Software Horror Stories” (http://www.cs.tau.