Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Sometimes, a computer science researcher produces a paper whose findings, if published, might lead to societal harm. Now, some experts are questioning the default course of action: publishing the paper anyway, potential damage be damned.

Why it matters: The call to suppress some research challenges decades-old principles in computer science and could slow work in a field that drives the economy, helps define the future of work and is the subject of intense global competition.

The big picture: If the field does decide to withhold some work, it would join several scientific disciplines, including nuclear, military and intelligence research, that often keep results under wraps.

"A very core principle in the computer science community has been that openness is a fundamental good," said Brent Hecht, a Northwestern professor who co-authored a proposal for how the field should address potentially harmful research. But he said "recent events have made me and my colleagues question that value."

  • Potentially harmful research should be published, says Hecht, but should include a discussion of "complementary technologies, policy, or other interventions that could mitigate the negative broader impacts."

The other side: No, it shouldn't be published, at least in rare cases, says Jack Clark, strategy and communications director at OpenAI, and Paul Scharre, director of the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

  • One reason for suppressing would be if a harmful finding was difficult to discover but easy to reproduce, Scharre says.

Would research be set back by selective openness?

  • Definitely, says Clark, but it's a worthwhile tradeoff. Choosing not to pump the brakes is like "saying scientific progress is more important than societal stability," he said.

A potential model comes from the field of computer security, several experts told Axios.

  • When security researchers find a critical vulnerability in computer code, they generally notify the software developers before announcing their findings publicly, giving engineers time to patch the problem. This is known as responsible disclosure.
  • For other types of computer science research, responsible disclosure could involve waiting to publish potentially harmful results until an effective countermeasure is ready for publication, too.
  • A middle-ground approach might see researchers withhold some details while still publishing their results. For instance, a paper might withhold computer code or training data that could easily be repurposed in a harmful way.

Go deeper: Confronting AI's demons.

Go deeper

Trump refuses to commit to peaceful transfer of power if he loses

President Trump repeatedly refused to say on Wednesday whether he would commit to a peaceful transition of power if he loses the election to Joe Biden, saying at a press briefing: "We're going to have to see what happens."

The big picture: Trump has baselessly claimed on a number of occasions that the only way he will lose the election is if it's "rigged," claiming — without evidence — that mail-in ballots will result in widespread fraud. Earlier on Wednesday, the president said he wants to quickly confirm a replacement for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg because he believes the Supreme Court may have to decide the result of the election.

"Not enough": Protesters react to no murder charges in Breonna Taylor case

A grand jury has indicted Brett Hankison, one of the Louisville police officers who entered Breonna Taylor's home in March, on three counts of wanton endangerment for firing shots blindly into neighboring apartments.

The state of play: Angering protesters, the grand jury did not indict any of the three officers involved in the botched drug raid on homicide or manslaughter charges related to the death of Taylor.

Dave Lawler, author of World
Updated 1 hour ago - World

U.S. no longer recognizes Lukashenko as legitimate president of Belarus

Lukashenko at his secret inauguration. Photo: Andrei Stasevich/BELTA/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. no longer recognizes Aleksandr Lukashenko as the legitimate president of Belarus, the State Department said in a statement on Wednesday.

Why it matters: Lukashenko has clung to power with the support of Russia amid seven weeks of protests that have followed a blatantly rigged election. Fresh protests broke out Wednesday evening in Minsk after it emerged that Lukashenko had held a secret inauguration ceremony.

Get Axios AM in your inbox

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!