Making Ethical Decisions: “How I Screwed Up, and How To Avoid It”.

Martin Hellman during "Being Human with Algorithms" Symposium


„Challenges in Making Ethical Decisions: A Personal Perspective” was the title of the talk which Martin Hellman gave during our Being-Human with Algorithms Symposium last year in Heidelberg. Two days ago he held the “Heidelberg Lecture” on invitation by this year’s meeting of the Nobel laureates in Lindau. Both meetings, the Heidelberg Laureate Forum and the Lindau Meeting of Nobel laureates, are interlinked and exchange speakers every year.

Martin Hellman has a long academic career. After graduation from NY University he worked at the IBM Watson Research Lab in Yorktown Height and as a Professor at MIT. In 1971 he joined Stanford Electrical Faculty of which he is still a member, now as an emeritus. In 2015 he received  the ACM Turing Award for the development of public-private-key encryption together with Whitfield Diffie. Hellman, along with Whitfield Diffie and Ralph Merkle, invented public key cryptography in 1976. The Diffie-Hellman key exchange was the first widely used method of safely developing and exchanging keys over an insecure channel. It is still frequently implemented today and laid the foundation for the encryption algorithms used to transfer trillions of dollars on a daily basis over the internet.

Not many people know, that Martin Hellman was for many years the advisor for several US presidents in the area of nuclear weapons disarmament. During this time he made friends and established personal relations with the opposite side.

“Ethical decisions are essential to the survival of civilization,” says Hellman. “Because of technology, it is imperative to accelerate the evolution of our ethical behavior.”

When Martin Hellman speaks about ethical decision making, he can draw a large repertoire of personal experience, both in his professional and his personal live, including his marriage.

Citing a Blog by Meeri Kim  from the Lindau Meeting gives an insight into his talk:

“The title of my talk is ‘The Technological Imperative for Ethical Evolution’, and that can sound a little bit dry,” said Hellman. “So I should tell you, I was tempted to make the subtitle, ‘How I Screwed Up, and How To Avoid It.” And that’s what you’re going to hear tonight.“
He organized his talk in the form of eight lessons that he learned the hard way — in other words, by making a mistake — and how they shaped his perspective on the world.

The first lesson involved the U.S. National Bureau of Standards, or what is known as the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) today, establishing a national data encryption standard with a 64-bit key in 1975. Hellman and Diffie discovered a major flaw in the algorithm that made the system less secure and tried to alert the government. After a lack of response, they began to realise that the National Security Agency (NSA) did not want a publicly available cryptographic system that they could not break.
“So Whit and I decided to go public with this. In fact, we were given the advice that we’re not going to change it by writing letters to the government. We had to get Congress involved, we had to get the media involved,” he said. “As we’re getting ready to do this in January 1976, and I remember this meeting well, two NSA employees flew out from Maryland to California to talk to us and said, ‘If you keep talking this way, you’re really going to hurt national security.’”
Hellman had to choose between the fame and attention he would receive from exposing this security flaw, versus the preservation of national security. The lesson he learned from this incident is the ease in which he can fool himself into believing his actions were justified, when in reality, they simply weren’t very ethical.

Another lesson came out of his introspective thoughts about his marriage. After his first ethical dilemma with the National Bureau of Standards, Hellman made a point to regard even minor ethical lapses as unacceptable. For instance, he made a vow to love his wife through good times and bad, so why was he mistreating her during the bad times?
“What happened is, I started getting practice daily with opportunities to become more ethical in my personal relationship and my relationships at work,” said Hellman. “The big ethical decisions come too infrequently for us to become proficient.”
Hellman and his wife Dorothy wrote a book, titled A New Map for Relationships: Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet, about how to create a loving marriage by adopting certain principles like holistic thinking and compassion. They also note that the same tools can also create peace instead of war on a global scale. They were close to divorce forty years ago and turned their relationship around by, among other things, ‘getting curious instead of furious.’
The lecture ended with a discussion about the risk of nuclear war. While society acts as if the risk is minimal, Hellman believes it could be as much as 1% per year. He asked the audience to imagine a person with a vest full of explosives sitting next to you in the auditorium, with one detonator in Washington, D.C. with President Trump and the other in Moscow with President Putin.
“Why, just because we can’t see the weapons controlled by those buttons, have we as a society sat here for 50 or 60 years complacently assuming that because the Earth’s explosive vest has not yet gone off, it never will?”, asked Hellman.
But there is a silver lining to the dark, looming cloud of nuclear risk. His final two lessons remind us that hope does exist for humanity becoming more ethical, and we can all play a role in this shift. If Hellman himself can change for the better and act more ethically, then so can other people and even whole nations. For example, although the threat of nuclear war still exists, the world’s nuclear arsenals have fallen 80 percent — from over 70,000 nuclear weapons in 1986 to only 14,000 today.
“So in conclusion, I’ve talked mostly about developing our thinking about nuclear weapons… But most of the ideas in today’s talk carry over to climate change and the other threats that we face”, he said. “All eight lessons for ethical evolution also apply to personal relationships. That’s where I got started with my wife, and that’s still where I see the most immediate benefits. I can’t tell you any nuclear weapon I got rid of, but I can tell you that I stopped fighting with my wife.”

Link to download the manuscript of the speech:

Link to download the video of his speech:

Gerhard Schimpf, the recipient of the ACM Presidential Award 2016 and 2024 the Albert Endes Award of the German Chapter of the ACM, has a degree in Physics from the University of Karlsruhe. As a former IBM development manager and self-employed consultant for international companies, he has been active in ACM for over four decades. He was a leading supporter of ACM Europe, serving on the first ACM Europe Council in 2009. He was also instrumental in coordinating ACM’s spot as one of the founding organizations of the Heidelberg Laureates Forum. Gerhard Schimpf is a member of the German Chapter of the ACM (Chair 2008 – 2011) and a member of the Gesellschaft für Informatik. --oo-- Gerhard Schimpf, der 2016 mit dem ACM Presidential Award und 2024 mit dem Albert Endres Award des German Chapter of the ACM geehrt wurde, hat an der TH Karlsruhe Physik studiert. Als ehemaliger Manager bei IBM im Bereich Entwicklung und Forschung und als freiberuflicher Berater international tätiger Unternehmen ist er seit 40 Jahren in der ACM aktiv. Er war Gründungsmitglied des ACM Europe Councils und gehört zum Founders Club für das Heidelberg Laureate Forum, einem jährlichen Treffen von Preisträgern der Informatik und Mathematik mit Studenten. Gerhard Schimpf ist Mitglied des German Chapter of the ACM (Chairperson 2008 – 2011) und der Gesellschaft für Informatik.

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