Rebecca Slayton: "Arguments that Count: Physics, Computing, and Missile Defense"

Rebecca SlaytonRebecca Slayton (Department of Science & Technology Studies, Cornell University) will give a public lecture on the role of computer scientists in assessing and discussing the risks associated with complex software of global importance.



In a rapidly changing world, we rely upon experts to assess the promise and risks of new technology. But how do these experts make sense of a highly uncertain future? This talk shows how scientists came to terms with the unprecedented threat of nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Drawing on new historical documents and interviews, it compares how two different professional communities—physicists and computer scientists—constructed arguments about the risks of missile defense, and how these arguments changed over time. In the 1950s, scientists recognized that high-speed computers would be needed to cope with the unprecedented speed of ICBMs, weapons that could carry nuclear bombs halfway around the globe in a half-hour.  But the nation’s elite science advisors had little way to estimate the performance of future computer systems, and instead used the disciplinary tools of physics to assess what they could: radar and missile performance. Only decades later, after computer scientists developed mathematical tools and a record of engineering experience, were advisors able to authoritatively analyze the risks associated with complex software—most notably, the risk of a catastrophic failure. I argue that our understanding of technological risks is shaped by disciplinary repertoires—the codified knowledge and mathematical rules that experts use to frame new challenges. And just as a Gestalt shift transforms a rabbit into a duck, a new repertoire can bring long-neglected risks into clear view.