July 12, 2024

Confidence in asking about algorithms – wissenschaft.de

Confidence in asking about algorithms – wissenschaft.de

Digitization raises not only technical, but also ethical questions. A team at HLRS is looking for practical recommendations.


It may come as a surprise that a PhD student works at the Center for High Performance Computing in Stuttgart (HLRS). After all, it is primarily about powerful computers, algorithms, models and simulations. But Niko Furmanek, chair of the Department of Philosophy of Computational Sciences since 2023, is not the only one: “There are six of us working in our group. Everyone has a double qualification: often a degree in mathematics and natural sciences, followed by a PhD in philosophy or social sciences.”

As computers continue to penetrate all areas of society and working life, this raises not only technical and scientific questions, but also ethical and epistemological questions. “We’re looking at these questions,” Furmanek says.

The HLRS is kind of a natural biology for this. Simulations, artificial intelligence (AI), and processing large amounts of data—always comes with questions of acceptance and trust. The most recent example of this that has garnered media attention is the AI-powered Chatbot ChatGPT, with which it will be possible to chat as a human in the future. So its publicly available prototype has sparked renewed discussions about the social implications of these chatbots in recent months.

Unique in Germany

The Formanek division was established in 2016. It is unique among the three national high-performance computing centers in Jülich, Garching and Stuttgart. “Our advantage is that our research is very close to other HLRS projects, which primarily research technical and scientific issues,” says Furmanek. When it comes to social or scientific and historical questions, his team works empirically, for example through interviews, surveys and real laboratories, and when it comes to philosophical questions, they work a lot with the scientific literature in order to extract new ideas from it.

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For example, on an already completed project, the department investigated the consequences when computer code in complex simulations could no longer be fully understood by individual experts, and how trust could then be established. In another project simulating plastic surgery for infants with deformed skulls, the Department of Philosophy at HLRS investigated how parents make decisions and how the simulation affects their decisions. “In this case, we conducted surveys and observed discussions among affected parents in the relevant forums,” says Furmanek.