Moreover, blockchain is often credited with the ability to solve tough long-standing problems. For example, Underwood mentioned “digital identity.”
Various attempts to address this challenge, including well-established approaches (such as Public Key Infrastructure and Web of Trust) fail in various ways
due to nontechnical aspects of human
relationships, including trust, social,
cognitive, economic, and even physical.
So far, moreover, no evidence has been
produced that shows how blockchain
outperforms existing technologies in addressing the problem of digital identity.
It is time to ask the right questions
about blockchain if we want to understand its actual properties, strengths,
and weaknesses, as well as its promise.
Ingo Mueller, Melbourne, Australia
Keep Human Judgment
in Remote Warfare
Though Keith Kirkpatrick’s news article “Can We Trust Autonomous Weapons?” (Dec. 2016) was thoughtful and
well balanced, we must still ask how
we should be identifying targets. From
the prisoners in the U.S. military prison
at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to the fighters targeted by autonomous vehicles
in Pakistan or Yemen, we depend on
human intelligence on the ground to
choose the ones to target, even though
that intelligence is sometimes faulty or
false. In practical terms, we have shown
we cannot get our boots off the ground.
We need to embed our forces in and
work with the populations we wish to
protect. Remote warfare—unless separated completely from ethics, responsibility, and long-term consequences—is
likely to remain a fantasy. It thus raises
the perennial question of where to draw
the line between computing intelligence and human reason, as explored
by MIT professor Joseph Weizenbaum
in his classic 1976 book Computer Power
and Human Reason: From Judgment to
Calculation on automation and human
decision making. Where computerized
warfare is concerned, human judgment
remains the supreme arbiter.
Andy Oram, Boston, MA
Communications welcomes your opinion. To submit a
Letter to the Editor, please limit yourself to 500 words or
less, and send to firstname.lastname@example.org.
©2017 ACM 0001-0782/17/02
K.R. Popper, and P. Feyerabend, and their
relevance to computer science.
Adi Livnat, Haifa, Israel, and
Dismayed by ‘Sex’ Cover
I am writing to express my dismay and
disappointment at the cover of the November 2016 issue introducing the article “Sex as an Algorithm: The Theory
of Evolution Under the Lens of Computation” by Adi Livnat and Christos
Papadimitriou, finding it offensive and
attention-grabbing in a way that is inconsistent with ACM’s public mission.
While I would guess that most readers either do not care or thought the
cover “funny” or “cute,” I have talked
to enough of my colleagues, who describe their reaction as “shocked,”
“appalled,” “offended,” and “
embarrassed,” to believe it is a serious issue
that warrants further reflection.
Specifically, is it really appropriate
for ACM, a professional organization
that purports to represent and support
all its members and all members of the
computing discipline, to distribute an
issue that some are embarrassed to
receive in our mailbox, display on our
desks or conference tables, or look at
on our computers if somebody might
be looking over our shoulders?
First, the research in question is
not about sex but about sexual repro-
duction and its effect on diversity in
populations. There is a major differ-
ence, and conflating the two in this way
comes across as juvenile. I cannot help
think of “locker room talk.”
Second, placing the huge, bold-
faced word “Sex” on a hot pink cover
creates an obvious and immediate as-
sociation with women. Given the under-
representation of women in the field,
this kind of message is completely
counterproductive and particularly
reminds young women, who may be
less certain about how welcome they
are in the field, that they are to be asso-
ciated with sex, not science.
Third, the unfortunate timing of this
issue, which arrived during National
Breast Cancer Awareness Month, was
undoubtedly unintentional, but to
those of us who have lost loved ones to
breast cancer, the hot pink cover felt
disrespectful and insensitive.
This may not seem like a big deal,
and I am sure some readers are thinking I am overly sensitive and humorless. But quite honestly, it is tough
enough being a woman in an extremely
male-dominated field without feeling
embarrassed and awkward about displaying my own professional organization’s magazine in public.
In the end, I dropped it into the recycling bin without reading it.
Marie desJardins, Baltimore, MD
The cover in question, for which I am
ultimately responsible, was meant to be
humorous. Since several readers were
offended by it, it is clear in retrospect the
humor was misguided. For that, I sincerely
apologize. This has been discussed by
the design team, and we hope to learn
from this mistake.
Moshe Y. Vardi, Editor-in-Chief
No Revolution Yet for Blockchain
Sarah Underwood’s news article
“Blockchain Beyond Bitcoin” (Nov.
2016) was yet another disappoint-
ing read on blockchain, offering an
(incomplete) summary of publicly
available information on the tech-
nology and its proposed application
areas. Many claims, including the
key one that “Blockchain technology
has the potential to revolutionize ap-
plications and redefine the digital
economy,” were neither discussed
nor backed up with evidence. From a
scientific point of view, this is insuf-
ficient. Worse, like many blockchain
proponents, Underwood failed, in my
opinion, to raise the right questions.
Instead of focusing on “what block-
chain could do,” one should address
“what blockchain can do better than
In this context, blockchain is often
compared to existing solutions rather
than to existing technologies, as in the
proverbial comparison of apples and
oranges. There may be any number of
reasons, including operational, eco-
nomic, or social, why an existing solu-
tion (as inadequate as it may be) has
not been replaced in the marketplace.
However, this does not mean per se
there is no existing, better-understood
technology than blockchain available
to address a given problem.