Patterns, Patterns, Everywhere

Posted by mouthyb | Posted in | Posted on 5:08 PM

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The toolkit and kind of analysis I want to use for my PhD project are the products of a relatively new arm of science, one which maybe thirty scientists in the world are specializing in, as it relates to predicting human behavior. A recent profile of one of the scientists in Popsci gives an example of precisely how accurate and useful this sort of thing can be.

I am interested in it, but with a caveat (and not a small one.) I believe, because I notice predictable patterns in human behavior, that it is completely possible to predict some aspects of it, as the scientist in this article has been able to do.

Many of the people I've talked to, in my department, disagree. They feel it is too complex to predict or understand, in that sense.

My caveat, of course, is that this sort of technology, like any technology, is easy to abuse. I am torn on this issue, as with most professional decisions. My passion is very definitely for human behavior and for technology; my feelings, on being allowed to use a computer for the first time, are of the order and magnitude which some people would associate with a good first date. I talked to it, stroked the shell of the giant CRT monitor and tried to spend every waking second playing with it. I was ten, and I would have thrown love and chocolate out the window to spend more time with the machine.

I am not, however, overeager to provide an easy mechanism for predicting and controlling human behavior. It is not a small reservation; the potential for abuse with this technology is staggering, as is the potential for greater understanding of human behavior and the ability to better understand the magnitude of the influence of technology on human behavior.

And what does one do, as a scientist, when faced with these kinds of decisions?

One of my professors made an offhand remark last month, her lips pursed with disgust, that she supposes I can always work for the Department of Defense. I stood there, middle of a departmental cocktail party, frozen with outrage. I am not incredibly interested in the espionage applications for the work I will be doing, and my father worked for the DoD.

I dislike him intensely, and disliked his work.

Another of my friends is getting a combined engineering and physics degree. When I told her, she said, "Welcome to my side of things. No one understands what you're up to, and they assume you'll end up working for the DoD, doing something ethically funky."

It bothers me; I want the right to fly, to stretch my mind to the utmost and see what I am capable of. I want the pleasure of solving problems, of working in the field which interests me the most and following that silent exclamation point, the knowledge that something is there, for me.

I have another caveat, as well. In this economic climate, I'm not sure I can refuse to do work I don't entirely like; I have a family to support. I am the breadwinner, and we can't afford too much pride from me.

I am hopeful that I will be able to compromise, but if it comes down to supporting everyone, I will take the best job I can.

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