Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Computing and the Reduction of Global Conflict

I came across some creative examples of university faculty who are using computing for societal benefit. I located these faculty through podcasts produced out of New Zealand by "The Sustainable Lens". One faculty member is taking an empirical approach to studying factors that promote peace.

A broadcast from 5/13/11 profiles the work of Juan Pablo Hourcade at the University of Iowa. Hourcade earned his doctorate in Computer Science with a focus in HCI. One of his goals is to convince people in the computing field that computing technologies can be used to reduce global conflict. He recognizes that a key to making the study of peace acceptable is to apply empirical scientific methodologies to the research. There are many aspects of this work. One of the most fascinating is the mining of masses of data to identify factors that increase or decrease the chances of conflict. These data are drawn from a myriad of sources including: demographic, historic, financial and economic, supply chain analysis, social and human condition, gender and inequality, environmental stress, social stress, and consumer behavior data. The power of computing is also leveraged to provide transparency of connections between individuals and transactions.

Computing is used to identify the factor(s) that matter the most in supporting or reducing conflict and are drawn from contemporary and historic sources - some going back several thousand years. Predictive modeling has a role as well. Visualization renders complex results easier to understand (there is a small pun in there by the way). The precision of computing provides the ability to zero in on the interaction of critical factors, providing the all important empirical (rather than philosophical) basis for making large scale policy decisions. Hourcade also discusses at some length implications for personal decision making.

Using known information about human psychology, Hourcade talks about how social media can be actively used to promote compassion - which he claims psychology has shown is key to reducing or altogether avoiding conflict. Social media can be used to bring together people who might see things from different perspectives. Psychology refers to this as reducing personal distance, a proven highly effective method of promoting the "humanization" of those who appear threatening but do not necessarily need to be so.

Although he only touched on the topic in one sentence during the interview, my ears perked up when Hourcade said he saw a role in conflict reduction for electronic voting systems. As I have learned through researching this topic for my book project (here is an earlier post I wrote about internet voting), electronic voting is incredibly controversial and often promotes passionate conflict! I wish there had been more time in the interview to pursue Hourcade's view on the role of electronic voting.

Hourcade made the interesting observation that there has been a significant amount of research in the computing field into ways to improve warfare and very little research aimed at reducing it. Good point.

Why not put the power of computing to work for the cause of global conflict reduction?

Is there any plausible reason not to pursue this line of research?

What ideas do you have about why computing research for peace has not been explored as much as say...economics? (Much of the data comes from the same sources.)

No comments:

Post a Comment