SC19 Proceedings

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

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility: Ethics in HPC


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

Abstract: This BoF hopes to start an ongoing, community-wide discussion about the role of ethics in HPC and to leave participants with a new awareness of the ethical considerations involved in this field. During this BoF, we hope to consider topics such as the role of HPC in supporting morally questionable applications, the ways in which HPC indirectly perpetuates inequality on both an international and individual level, and the environmental impact of HPC. By starting this dialogue, we can help ensure that we are fulfilling HPC’s promise of making the world a better place.

Long Description: Computer ethics is not a new idea. However, with the rapid speed of innovation in HPC, few have had time to consider the ethical concerns of these advances. The goal of this BoF is to begin a community-wide discussion about what ethical issues exist in HPC, what responsibilities these issues engender, and how we should approach our work.

There are many complex ethical issues surrounding the field of HPC. Consider, for example, the use of HPC to support unethical applications, the role of HPC in perpetuating inequality or the environmental impact of HPC.

HPC is ethically neutral. Although many of the HPC applications range from ethically neutral to unquestionably good, some of these applications rest in grey area, such as finding new oil wells, maintaining nuclear weapons, mining personal information to create targeted ads, and developing profiles to track people for commercial and legal purposes. In addition, HPC could be leveraged for clearly unethical ends such as designing an optimally destructive pathogen or engineering an effective disinformation campaign. As a technology that could potentially be used for unethical applications, we must consider what, if anything, the community should do to ward against this.

HPC also indirectly perpetuates inequality. As with any expensive, high skill technology, accessibility is an important issue. Of the Top500 supercomputing systems, only 6 come from South America and Africa , which together are home to over 1.6 Billion people. HPC is thus a technology of wealthy nations being used to perpetuate this wealth. Businesses can use HPC to give themselves a competitive advantage in the global marketplace, just as nations can use HPC to increase their national productivity and protect their citizen’s welfare. We should also consider whether HPC is perpetuating inequality at a societal level. Women and other minorities remain highly underrepresented both in tech as a whole, and in HPC in particular. We must consider whether this lack of diversity, in addition to weakening the field, creates an ethical imperative.

Finally, we must consider the environmental impact of HPC. Already seven of the top 10 supercomputers in the world require 63MW of electricity. This is enough to power over 50,000 American households. This number represents only a small fraction of the environmental footprint of HPC, whose total impact includes hundreds of machines, storage systems, facilities that house these systems, and production and shipping of the hardware components. Particularly in the face of climate change, we must consider the environmental impact HPC is having. This BoF hopes to start an ongoing, community-wide discussion about the role of ethics in HPC and to leave participants with an increased awareness of the ethical considerations involved in this field. Having these discussions and creating this awareness is critical to ensuring that we are truly fulfilling HPC’s promise of making the world a better place.


URL: https://ethics-in-hpc.github.io/


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