Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning

Communing on Computing

Robin K. Hill, University of Wyoming

What can we gain from discussion with others in the profession? Ideas, pride, and inspiration, and refreshment! These gains come from membership in organizations like ACM, but also in attendance at conferences, where talks reveal the current perplexities, explorations, and potential resolutions at the "top of mind" of our professional peers. I was lucky enough to attend three conferences in the past two months that concerned the philosophy of computing. Here are some reflections. They are necessarily patchy and superficial and risk omitting the best parts; only dedicated participation (by you) would give the full picture (related to your interests).

Its meeting of early July was my first experience with the Society for Philosophy in the Contemporary World, Held in Colorado, the talks demonstrated the group’s promotion of disciplined application of philosophical methods to contemporary public issues such as gender diversity and climate change, affect and information, and more. My contribution was an account of the current impoverishment of philosophical considerations in computing, and suggested entry points for such considerations. When this lively meeting was in full swing, I had to leave, missing most of the action.

Secondly, but preceding SPCW, the Fifth International Symposium on the History and Philosophy of Programming took place in Lille, France. That conference alternates yearly with the complementary symposium on the History and Philosophy of Computing (see 2017 blog on HaPoC), under European Union support. HaPoP-5, this year, was followed by a French-funded project, PROGRAMme, where some of the same experts are collaborating on major publications intended to answer the question, "What is a Computer Program?"

At HaPoP-5, programs as artifacts were examined under contexts that ranged from the Blum Size Theorem to analogies to debt and death to reaction versus expression to artistic miniatures and linguistics—a very rich set of perspectives. See the online abstracts at for more, and hope for a volume of proceedings. My own contribution was an inquiry into the utility of the "Hello World" program.

Thirdly, the annual conference of the International Association of Computing and Philosophy ( currently alternates between Europe and the Americas, although the group welcomes members from all over (see 2016 blog on IACAP). This year, Santa Clara University in California hosted three days of talks and discussions on the theme of Engineering Ethics. This brought several presentations on AI, with supportive treatment of explainability and privacy and critical treatment of big tech companies and social media. But not so fast! Reader, you must understand that my description is simplistic, obliterating the interesting details of the analyses given. Traditional topics in the theory of computation and the philosophy of mind also made appearances, in algorithms and extended minds. I myself talked about barricades to ethical analysis in the blockchain paradigm. This correspondent, of course, had to miss other timely and intriguing presentations.

IACAP 2022 also offered a bonus meeting, a review and summary of an ethics school held the previous week. Such coupling allows attendees to get more from their travel money. Those of us with little or no research funding appreciate the extras. Conferences are expensive! All prospective participants should thoroughly investigate sources of support, and spend it wisely on events with research credibility; you may wish to start small, with a low-key meeting rather than one of the huge well-known gatherings.

Attendees at these conferences are diverse, as are their views. While an academic conference embraces many frames of reference and accommodates many approaches, newcomers are sometimes nervous about how to fit in. We can’t deny that some conventions are followed, impose lightweight but tacit expectations, to which neophytes are especially sensitive. But polite adult behavior usually meets them. For instance: Use language suitable for all generations, and avoid assumptions about culture, humor, and ideology. Don’t inflict sales or campaigns on the group. Wear anything you like—that you would wear to a college class. Do ask a question even if you think the answer is obvious; it helps others in the audience. Don’t hijack the question period by taking up all its allotted time. Don’t be offended by the questions that you may be asked. All talks at these conferences are given in English—we native speakers should acknowledge a certain privilege—so don’t indulge in virtuosic parlance (like that). Chat with people who look lost.

The refreshment I claim in the opening paragraph is not just based on food. While the quest for a decent cup of tea at a conference remains a crushing disappointment, a French conference banquet is every bit as good as you would hope, and Santa Clara University boasts great caterers. But the greatest refreshment comes in the recharge of enthusiasm for scholarship and inquiry.

Many of us don’t think of ourselves as "joiners," but we want to take pride in our work. Professional societies such as the ACM, and professional meetings, help elevate the quality of that work in many ways. I encourage students and others newly interested in these topics to explore the advantages of professional organizations, and to go to a conference, listen and observe, think and converse. Extend that mind.


Robin K. Hill is a lecturer in the Department of Computer Science and an affiliate of both the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies and the Wyoming Institute for Humanities Research at the University of Wyoming. She has been a member of ACM since 1978.

Join the Discussion (0)

Become a Member or Sign In to Post a Comment

The Latest from CACM

Shape the Future of Computing

ACM encourages its members to take a direct hand in shaping the future of the association. There are more ways than ever to get involved.

Get Involved

Communications of the ACM (CACM) is now a fully Open Access publication.

By opening CACM to the world, we hope to increase engagement among the broader computer science community and encourage non-members to discover the rich resources ACM has to offer.

Learn More