The University of Waterloo celebrates its 60th anniversary with kickoff event “Beyond 60” Jan. 9. Edward Snowden, whistleblower of mass surveillance programs used by the United States government, and Kate Darling, a researcher at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab, were keynote speakers. The special lecture event also included a panelist of UW professors: Beth Coleman, associate professor in the faculty of arts, Dana Kulić, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Michele Mosca, professor of mathematics and co-founder of the Institute for Quantum Computing, who spoke on the future of human interaction with technology.
Kicking off the event, President and Vice Chancellor Feridun Hamdullahpur revealed that UW is Maclean’s most innovative university for the 25th consecutive year. He mentioned innovation in his opening remarks in the context of challenging the status quo. Although innovation as a concept is a core value at the university, it is often associated with finding solutions to hard problems using technology and reaping economic gains. However, who better to provide a balanced view on the possible perils that new technology can bring than Snowden?
Snowden, in Moscow, addressed the audience through video conferencing against an all-black background. He insisted that his actions in 2013, which resulted in revealing the existence of mass surveillance programs by the Central Intelligence Agency to the public, were about democracy and human rights. His lecture focused on how mass surveillance programs, under the guise of protecting citizens from terrorist activities, violate privacy. This in turn violate the right to free speech, since surveillance discourages people from exploring ideals and making mistakes.
“Freedom of speech doesn’t mean very much unless you have the space … to figure out what it is that you believe, what it is that you want to say. People who say ‘I don’t care about the right to privacy because I have nothing to hide’ — that is no different than saying, ‘I don’t care about freedom of speech because I have nothing to say.’”
When a member of the audience asked Snowden about Wikileaks and their model of uncurated disclosure of classified information, Snowden distanced himself. He had contacted journalists who had the full support of their institutions (e.g. The Washington Post and the Guardian) to contact the U.S. government to investigate the validity of his claims and prove public harm will be caused as a result of the leak.
He ended on a point right on the nose of the theme of this event: changing the status quo.
“If you are defending rights, you are never going to be defending what is popular. Because the majority position doesn’t need defending. The majority can change its laws. The majority can assert its own rights. People who are rich and powerful and privileged can reshape society in accordance to their desires … but rights matter. They matter especially and intensely for people who are different.… It is the minorities to whom rights matter most.”
Darling, lectured on human robot interactions. Research in this area shows that people have the tendency to anthropomorphize interactive machines. This fact has both positive and negative implications. On one hand, robots may be used therapeutically in hospitals and senior homes. On the other hand, the dangers of integrating robots manufactured by companies or governments with interests that do not always align with the good of the public, are numerous.
For example, Darling asked whether people can become desensitized to violence through mistreating human-like robots if used therapeutically as an outlet for anger. Academic institutions thus, have the responsibility to carry out independent research that will turn into policies that will protect consumers, said Darling.
This special lecture is part of a series of events UW will host to celebrate its 60th anniversary in 2017.
This article has been corrected for inputting the correct name of the associate professor in the faculty, adding Michele Mosca’s other position as professor in the faculty of mathematics, and inputting the correct number of years Maclean’s has announced UW as the most innovative university.