Ethics in High-Performance Computing

Ethical concerns in science can be traced back for centuries. With acceleration of innovation and an increasing impact of HPC on daily life, however, it is more important than ever to have these discussions. The goal of this platform is to foster a community-wide discussion on ethics in HPC on issues such as what responsibilities we have as practitioners in the field and how best to ensure that ethical concerns are considered in the development and implementation of HPC applications.

HPC as a widely applied computational tool is ethically neutral, although some applications may rest in gray areas, such as extending oil and gas exploration, maintaining nuclear weapons, mining personal information for targeted ads or mass surveillance. In addition, HPC could be leveraged for clearly unethical ends such as designing an optimally destructive pathogen or engineering an effective disinformation campaign. As a technology that can be abused, we must consider what, if anything, the community should do to ward against this.

HPC may intensify economic disparity as illustrated by the example that just over 1% of Top500 supercomputing systems , reside in South America and Africa, despite being home to approximately 20% of the world’s population. Just as nations can use HPC to increase their national productivity and protect their citizen’s welfare, businesses might use HPC manifest a competitive advantage.

We should also consider whether HPC is perpetuating inequality at a societal level. With no lack of global social injustice, women and people of color remain greatly underrepresented also within HPC communities, perhaps this lack of diversity is an inhibitor to the field. 

The environmental impact of HPC is another matter of importance, considering that the Top 4 supercomputers already consume 60MW in electricity, the equivalent of 50,000 American households. This number, represents only a small fraction of the environmental footprint of HPC, as is particularly important relative to climate change.

With more and more workloads also on HPC systems incorporating machine learning sometimes directly affecting people’s lives, practitioners in HPC also have to familiarize themselves with the ethical implications of ML/AI. This includes the implications that new generation of automation capabilities might impose on labor forces and society, the resulting risks of amplifying bias, or in machines that kill.

This website is meant to collect a knowledge base, inform about notable events, and relay interesting artifacts related to ethical questions surrounding HPC and it’s applications.

“Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.”

C.S. Lewis

Top500. (2020). Top500 Supercomputing Sites.

Suggestions & Feedback

Found an interesting article, an event, or a topic we should cover? Feel free to submit those or feedback here. We appreciate it a lot!