Scientific computing technology should benefit all, Brown researcher tells Congress

Scientific computing technology should benefit all, Brown researcher tells Congress

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Later this year, the U.S. is expected to switch on the nation’s first exascale supercomputers, which will be capable of performing one quintillion operations per second — many times faster than the fastest supercomputers operating today. It’s a major milestone in scientific computing that will vastly expand research capacity in everything from meteorology to medicine.

In testimony given on Wednesday, May 19, before a U.S. House of Representative subcommittee, Brown computer scientist Seny Kamara reminded lawmakers that along with the great power of cutting-edge computing comes a responsibility to make sure those systems are used ethically and for the benefit of all.  

“Exascale computing is not only an incredible achievement, but an incredible resource with the power to shape our lives and those of future generations,” Kamara told members of Congress as he delivered his testimony virtually. “As such, we must be careful and thoughtful about how we make use of it. In particular, it is incumbent upon us to make sure that we deploy and use this resource in a manner that is fair and inclusive; that benefits not only the powerful, but those who have historically been marginalized by society and technology.”

Kamara, an associate professor of computer science at Brown and an expert in cryptography and data security, spoke before the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology’s Subcommittee on Energy. The hearing included experts from government, higher education and industry discussing the future of the nation’s scientific computing infrastructure.

In his remarks, Kamara cited examples of how well-intentioned technology can be used in potentially nefarious or destructive ways. Facial recognition, for example, is great for helping people log on to smartphones quickly, but it can also be used for intrusive surveillance.

“We must always remind ourselves that technology is not inherently good and does not benefit everyone equally by default,” he said. “In fact, we need to think hard about the harms technology can cause and work even harder to mitigate those harms.”

It’s critical as well, Kamara said, to make sure the benefits of these technologies are equally distributed.

“The investments we are making in exascale computing will improve national security, the U.S. economy and industry,” he said. “But will everyone benefit equally from this investment? Will the 13-year-old girl from Washington Heights, New York, benefit from this investment as much as the tech, energy and pharmaceutical industries? Will there be as much effort to use these supercomputers in the fight against sickle cell anemia as other diseases?”

He urged lawmakers to keep equity and social responsibility in mind as they plot the course of the nation’s scientific computing infrastructure.