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Catholic Colleges & Universities

Questions of roborats, cybertheft and fatal bugs

Bronx, N.Y.

On the pull-down computer projection screen at the front of their classroom, a group of Fordham University seniors learn that scientists at the State University of New York’s Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn have turned rats into intelligent robots by implanting electrodes in their brains and strapping power packs onto their backs.

Thus equipped the rodents can be used in search and destroy, reconnaissance or rescue missions. But just because the “roborats” might save a life -- even a firefighter, soldier or a child’s life -- is it ethical to use rats to do a controller’s bidding?

The question, posed in an online article assigned to the students, is one of many that Jesuit Fr. Nicholas Lombardi puts to the 20 students in his senior values seminar, titled “Cyberspace, Ethics and Issues.” It meets for 75 minutes twice weekly. This is the fourth year Lombardi is teaching the course. Feedback from students indicates, “It’s cutting edge -- the most relevant class they do,” he told NCR.

At first students saw nothing wrong in using rats as robots. “We kill chickens and eat them for our benefit,” one offered. “I find it difficult to argue don’t use rats,” commented another who wants mosquitoes -- “the greatest killers on earth” -- eliminated before rats.

Before the animal rights defenders could take on those upholding the food chain hierarchy, Lombardi interjected: “The point is not whether it’s right or wrong, but rather how ‘unobvious’ it is that it’s right or wrong.”

Probing notions of right and wrong

Lombardi said he wants students to probe where their notions of right and wrong originate. How do they make moral determinations? Why do they feel the way they do? What sources inform their opinions? How do they form absolute judgments?

He said he sees his job as trying to make up for a “pseudo-liberal attitude” that says students should be free to pick and choose their own value systems, decide what’s right or wrong on their own. The result of such nurturing in middle schools and high schools is that most college students today are fairly good at critical thinking, but many are “deprived of strong opinions. They don’t want to force strong opinions on anyone,” Lombardi said during an interview in the Faculty Resource Center, a state-of-the-art technology center he directs.

“Stealing is bad,” Lombardi told the class as he moved from student to student, pulling an unoccupied desk upright and using it as a lectern or sitting sidesaddle on another one directly in front of a row of students. The effort to engage them in the discourse occurred on many fronts.

“An out-of-work mom can steal bread,” he said. “Or can she?” The priest, dressed in a white lab coat over his clerical collar and shirt, pivoted toward the students, tossing the question into their laps. “I’m open to interpretation.”

“It’s illegal,” one student offered. “You can get arrested for stealing.”

Lombardi countered that not everything that’s legal is moral or obviously good. He probes their understanding of the role of emotions, intuition, law, religion, majority opinion and common sense in an effort to get them to investigate the origins of their own values system.

A classicist by training, Lombardi offered insights on the meaning of “vendetta” from the story of Oedipus. He talked of Roman law and of “conscience” -- from its Latin roots. Conscience is what you come to know “deep down and earnestly agree with,” he said.

No student should leave Fordham or any other college or university without values grounded in an informed conscience, he said. The goal of the senior seminar is to deliver the tools students need to face future moral issues arising in the workplace, in health care, politics, in the media as well as in the area of relationships and parenting.

Personal issues and social concerns grounded in Christian personal and social ethics are the starting points for his class discussions. He wants students to build upon their background in academia and apply it to the practical issues of daily life in the technological world. He encourages them to question and develop their own values as experienced in their studies and culture and to share them with seminar participants. Through class presentations, students become enabled to express an informed conscience, he said.

Lombardi’s hope is that once students have encountered the Jesuit ideals of learning and questioning, and have developed an informed conscience, they will contribute to society on the particular moral questions posed in modern technology.

Among key issues the class is looking at this semester are those of software ownership and intellectual property, of software piracy, viruses, defective software, documentation, information access and privacy.

Ethics applied

Last fall’s seminar became heavily engaged over the privacy issue with many viewing it as “a tradeoff,” the priest said. Of course it’s OK for Amazon.com to try to sell you other stuff based on your previous purchases, argued some students, while others wanted their personal data protected.

Lombardi recalled that, as the discussion grew more polarized, one student asked his fellow participants: “Do you people really care? Have you done something that anyone shouldn’t know, that you have to hide?” Everyone laughed.

In 1999 Lombardi published an article in America magazine titled “Borrowing or Cybertheft” in which he argued that it’s stealing to copy someone else’s disk for your own use when you haven’t purchased the installation disks. In 1982 when Lombardi wrote and sold his first computer programs, he said he didn’t give much thought to “trying out” software that he hadn’t paid for himself. But after spending sleepless nights writing and debugging his own programs, his attitude changed drastically.

In the early 1980s Lombardi became fascinated by the computer’s potential for interaction after playing Space Invaders for hours with another Jesuit. He soon designed drills in Greek and Latin and sold them to Atari. He also developed a tutorial on the passive voice and multiple choice computer quizzes for Homer’s The Odyssey. In 1990 he studied artificial intelligence with an IBM executive who had worked in the field for three decades.

“There was no question in my mind about intellectual property rights. There was no question that the stuff I wrote was mine and that I could give it away or sell it, but no one else had any right to take, use, sell or swap it without my consent. Suddenly I realized that software doesn’t just drop out of the sky and isn’t just produced by big amorphous conglomerates with lots of money, but by people like me.”

Students gave the “Napster response” to his argument, equating his position with that taken by record companies who claim exclusive rights to wealth they didn’t create. They asked: “What about artists who want to get their stuff known by the public?”

Lombardi countered that piracy robs artists of legitimate royalties. He familiarized his students with phrases like “rationalization,” “denial” and “conditioning” -- key concepts in understanding ethics.

“When I wrote that [America] article I thought in more black and white categories than I do now,” Lombardi said. His own desk is framed with 54 installation disks -- all purchased by Lombardi. The desk occupies the corner of the Faculty Resource Center. The center prepares faculty members to use computer technology in their classrooms.

“Some of the old dogs, who think they can’t pick it up, learn quickly,” he said, while some younger ones “need much more time.”

Unsafe equipment

Learning to operate the equipment is a lot easier than probing the challenges that computers pose, he said. “There are so many implications of new technology that people haven’t noticed yet.” Computers are giving results we can’t check or may take years to check, he said. The rush to produce and deploy new computer products in an all-competing industry has spawned untested and unsafe equipment and programs, he added, pointing to an X-ray machine that has killed a number of people because “of a bug in the system they can’t control.”

Besides questions of individual vs. corporate responsibility, Lombardi requires his seniors to research social issues in the computer realm. These include computer crime, hackers and piracy, cryptography and national security, product service, computer communication and freedom of expression, and questions about what manufacturers owe the consumer and community.

“Who’s accountable for fatal bugs?” he asked, noting in the interview that “our nuclear arsenal is controlled by computers,” as are chemical formulas and medical tests and treatments. A bug in any of these systems can kill.

Lombardi expresses alarm that questions of technology and ethics are “so undercovered by ethicists, theologians and religion teachers. There are no laws, no common ground” in this field yet. Clearly, Lombardi hopes that graduates from Fordham and other Catholic colleges and universities will fill these gaps.

“To be a Catholic institution of higher learning at all means to give students something they can believe and trust,” he said. Lombardi calls “faith and reason … two wings of the human spirit. One of the things our kids finally come to use after four years is their faith, but they forget it’s reasonable. Our faith is not superstitious or irrational.”

He pointed to teachings of the early church fathers and the councils, which grew out of spirited debates and consensus. “For heaven’s sake, the Catholic church invented the university.”

Patricia Lefevere is an NCR special report writer.

National Catholic Reporter, October 25, 2002