3 May 2013
As a grad student in the Linguistics Department at UCSD in the early 90’s, I saw a flier for a meeting of the campus chapter of Student Pugwash. I am not a “joiner” by nature, but was so captivated by the founding story and by the aims of the group that I showed up at a meeting.
What I learned from Student Pugwash both reinforced my basic ideals and gave me the ethical framework with which to put them into practice. Our group comprised students of chemistry, biology, and engineering (if memory serves), but I realized that even as a student of the theory of language, most of my employment options (outside of a university environment) were going to be defense-related. While I could certainly not pre-classify all military applications of linguistics as “bad”, I might be faced with concerns down the line.
Sure enough, concurrent with my coursework at UCSD I was working at a small software engineering company. We were under contract with the Department of Education to develop some fascinating products for Apple computers: a speech therapy application that allowed users to view their own articulatory tracts on a split-screen next to a target of the same speech sample, and model their own accordingly; a word processing system for American Sign Language; and cognitive rehabilitation software for people with head injuries.
A co-worker and I focused on grammar and spellcheckers targeted for students with writing problems tied to being nonnative speakers, hearing impaired, or learning disabled. So, I was stunned when my employers accepted a subcontract through a large Department of Defense contractor, and asked me to work on the project (it primarily involved speech recognition).
With the luxury of no mouths to feed, I declined. My superiors presented me with many of the arguments I had been told to expect by the group, including: “If you don’t do it, someone else will,” “Wouldn’t you rather have it be someone like you, with a sense of responsibility?” and “Think of the spin-offs that could help so many people.” I was grateful to the Student Pugwash group for having prepared me.
I have been doing mostly volunteer work for a local and national non-profit for the last decade, but I’d love to return to my first alma mater, SDSU. By earning the certificate in Computational Linguistics (CL), I hope to find work as a research linguist. CL is related to Natural Language Processing (a subfield of Artificial Intelligence).
Computational Linguists are currently being recruited by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. We are also being hired by companies that develop major search engines and those that develop social media. With these latter job options would come ethical issues involving privacy. In my opinion, it’s an important time for people in our field to have access to good information that will allow them to tailor their respective career paths in ways that feel right to them.
– Tam Kozman is an alumn of Student Pugwash USA. Tam works with the Narcolepsy Network national organization and the Narcolepsy Network Support Group of San Diego County