TO SERVE MAN,” ashortscience fiction story written by Da- mon Knight in 1950, was the basis for a 1962 episode of the classic TV series “The
Twilight Zone.” The story opens at a
special session of the United Nations
where three alien emissaries are testifying that the purpose of their mission
to Earth is to bring humans “the peace
and plenty which we ourselves enjoy,
and which we have in the past brought
to other races throughout the galaxy.”
The title of the story uses the dual
meanings of the verb to serve: “to assist” or “to provide as a meal.” At the
conclusion of the story, the narrator realizes to his horror that an alien book
titled How to Serve Man is a cookbook!
This story came back to mind when I
recently attended the First International
Workshop on Digital Humanisma (
organized by the Faculty of Informatics of Technical University of Vienna,
Austria). The workshop, attended by a
highly multidisciplinary audience, was
motivated by a deep sense of frustration with the current relationship between technology and society. There is
no doubt that we are in the midst a profound transformation of our society,
with computer science and its artifacts
as a major driver of change. Whereas
this development opens enormously
positive possibilities for our future,
it also raises serious questions and
has dramatic downsides—as was expressed by Tim Berners-Lee in 2017 in
his anguished declaration “The system
is failing.” Instead of technology assisting humanity, technology sometimes
seems to “eat” humanity.
Technology has always been a two-edged sword. We discovered fire approximately one million years ago; a
discovery so crucial to human progress
“ and development that Greek mythology attributes it to Prometheus stealing
it from the gods to give it to humans,
but people still die from fire regularly.
In fact, according to the classical Greek
poet Hesiod, when Prometheus stole
fire from heaven, Zeus, the king of the
gods, took vengeance by sending Pandora with a gift box to Prometheus’
brother. The box contained sickness,
death, and many other unspecified
evils, which were then released into the
world. Greek mythology, it seems, is
telling us that technology is never free
from adverse consequences.
Other scientific disciplines have
had their moment of abrupt realization of the dual nature of technology.
Chemists gave us the first “weapons of
mass destruction” in World War I. The
German chemist Otto Hahn, a future
Nobel laureate, was recruited to the
German chemical weapons program.
Hahn went to the eastern front to see
for himself the capabilities of this
new weapon. “I was very ashamed and
deeply agitated,” he wrote later. The
American physicist Robert Oppenheimer was the wartime head of the
Los Alamos Laboratory and is among
those credited with being the “father
of the atomic bomb” for his role in
the Manhattan Project, the American
World War II effort to develop nuclear
weapons. When the first atomic bomb
was successfully detonated in July
1945 in New Mexico, Oppenheimer
recited the words from the Sanskrit
scripture Bhagavad Gita: “Now I
am become Death, the destroyer of
worlds.” He went on later to oppose
the development of the fusion bomb.
Biologists had the foresight to be
proactive. The Asilomar Conference on
Recombinant DNA held in 1975 at the
Asilomar Conference Center in Califor-
nia was an influential event organized
to discuss the potential biohazards
and regulation of biotechnology. The
conference brought together approxi-
mately 140 biologists, lawyers, and
physicians to draw up voluntary guide-
linesb to ensure the safety of recombi-
nant DNA technology.
The recent Vienna workshop focused
on the broad societal role of digital technology. Its basic premise was that technology is for people and not the other
way round. We need to put “humanity”
at the center of our work. The goal of the
workshop was to raise questions, rather
than provide answers. It was acknowledged that computer science alone cannot provide answers to the challenges
raised by the digital transformation.
Yet the participants were convinced it
is possible to influence the future of
science and technology and, in consequence, society. They were also aware of
their joint responsibility for the current
situation and the future—both as professionals and citizens.
The workshop launched the drafting of the Vienna Manifesto on Digital
Humanism,c which was proposed and
discussed at the workshop, and finalized in a cooperative online mode afterward. The Manifesto is a call to reflect
and act on current and future technological development, to provide input
to future discussions, and to influence
societal and policy decision making. We
have unleashed the “information revolution.” Its outcome depends on us!
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Moshe Y. Vardi ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Karen Ostrum
George Distinguished Service Professor in Computational
Engineering and Director of the Ken Kennedy Institute for
Information Technology at Rice University, Houston, TX, USA.
He is the former Editor-in-Chief of Communications.
Copyright held by author.
To Serve Humanity
DOI: 10.1145/3338092 Moshe Y. Vardi