Computer Scientist Shares Enlightening Journey to See the ‘Value in Expression’

Four years ago, Haoqi Zhang, associate professor of computer science at Northwestern Engineering, started a philosophical journey that would reshape his way of thinking about human values and engagement. He began reading about the work of Talbot Brewer, a philosopher and author of the book The Retrieval of Ethics. It took Zhang one year to read the book — only because it took him that long to comprehend the “foreign, yet familiar” concepts.

Haoqi ZhangZhang now wants other computer scientists, including researchers in artificial intelligence and human-computer interaction, to examine their thinking from a consequentialist point of view (which judges actions solely by their consequences, i.e. goal-reaching methods) to also incorporate a dialectical mindset (which emphasizes the inherent value of an activity, e.g. being a good friend). This dichotomy is explored in Zhang’s position paper, “Searching for the Non-Consequential: Dialectical Activities in HCI and the Limits of Computers,” which he presented on May 14 during the Association of Computing Machinery’s Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Honolulu, Hawaii.

“It's a theory and philosophy paper that is really trying to help us understand why, fundamentally, there are some things that computers can't do,” said Zhang, principal investigator of the Center for Advancing Safety of Machine Intelligence (CASMI) project titled, “Human-AI Tools for Expressing Human Situations and Contexts to Machines.” “The concept in the paper is very basic, yet it's actually very hard to articulate correctly and to understand fully and appreciate.”

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