Meet Your Neighbor: Computer ethics expert and artist Don Gotterbarn

Zach Vance • Mar 24, 2019 at 8:16 PM

BRISTOL — On a rainy Thursday afternoon, one of the world’s foremost experts in computer ethics sits alone inside A Work of Art Gallery & Gifts, scanning a calendar as he attempts to organize his strenuous travel schedule for May. 

At 76 years old, Don Gotterbarn is working his once-a-month shift at the cooperative art gallery, where a section near the back showcases a dozen or so of his own water paintings. 

Gotterbarn’s life work contradicts the notion that people are either predominately “left-brained” or “right-brained,” creative or logical, artistic or mathematical.

Gotterbarn is undoubtedly both.

While arranging his travel schedule entailing business trips to Geneva, Chicago and Virginia during the span of a single month, Gotterbarn eagerly jumps up, ready to show his works of art. 

For each of his framed paintings — all recreations of places he’s seen — Gotterbarn recalls in exact detail how each scene appeared to him. 

One of his many favorites is a painting of a simple autumn leaf laying atop a log, which he stumbled upon while on the Appalachian Trail. 

“This was an instant in time. You’re walking along, and you saw these orange leaves reflecting in the sunlight. This was a morning shot, and (I) just said, ‘I’ve got to do that,’” Gotterbarn, an active member of the Watauga Valley Art League, said. 

“I took a couple of pictures and then (I) conditioned the log, because if it was the gray of a dead tree, you would not see the orange. So to make the orange come out, you make your gray have blues in it.” 

To Gotterbarn, he approaches most things as a complexity needing simplified, whether he’s trying to find the ideal hue of blue to recreate an Italian coastline or he’s writing the latest draft of the Association for Computing Machinery’s Software Engineering Code of Ethics and Professional Practice. 

For at least 25 years, Gotterban as served as the chief architect of the AMC’s Code of Professional Ethics, a document adopted worldwide by the computing community. He moved to Johnson City in 1990 to help establish a computer science master’s program in software engineering at East Tennessee State University. 

He has since retired as a professor emeritus, but he remains active in his field, traveling the world explaining the importance of ethics in software development and computer hardware. During his career, Gotterbarn has consulted to the United Nations, U.S. Navy, Saudi Arabian Navy and other international militaries and governments.  

Most recently, Gotterbarn received the ACM’s 2018 Presidential Award for developing the blueprint for professional conduct in the computing industry. 

Although his work spans different industries and different countries, Gotterbarn has followed, sometimes unknowingly, a proverb passed onto him by his father. 

“I was lucky that my father always said, ‘Figure it out. Do a good job. You’re responsible.’ And I believed that. So I went to a science high school in New York and was going to become an engineer. (I) figured stuff out. Then I decided I was going to be a minister and took philosophy in college. (I) figured it out. Then I decided I wasn’t going to be a minister, so I taught philosophy. (I) figured it out,” Gotterbarn said.

“The common element there, I’ve finally come to realize, is all of this was looking at very complex situations and trying to understand and make sense of the complexity that I encountered.”

In the 1970s, when computers took up entire buildings, Gotterbarn left his career teaching philosophy and entered the computing industry. 

“Computers work on ‘ons’ and ‘offs’ (and) ‘1s’ and ‘0s.’ If you’re a philosopher and teaching mathematic logic, you work on ‘truth’ and ‘false.’ So any truth and false table is a ‘1’ and ‘0’ table,” Gotterbarn said. “Following the logic lets you know full well many of the mistakes that people can make in logical reasoning.”

In 1976, Gotterbarn picked up a book that forever altered the trajectory of his life. 

“When I was reading this book, I went ‘Holy Mackerel!’ It was a simple statement like, ‘Computers have impacts, and as you develop them, you’re responsible for the impacts.’ It was that notion that probably fit in with all of that earlier training from my dad,’’ Gotterbarn said. 

As an example of computer ethics, Gotterbarn said a radiation machine was developed in the 1980s so the “X” button on a QWERTY keyboard would start it and increase the radiation, while the “C” button would cancel it.

Gotterbarn said many patients died from overexposure to radiation because programmers did not consider the “X” and “C” on a QWERTY keyboard were side-by-side.

“(Computer ethics is) educating computer professionals that they have the same responsibility as a physicians because every line of code they write impacts other people,” Gotterbarn said. “You don’t think of simply solving the problem, but you have to solve it in a way that doesn’t have negative impacts, and preferably solve it in a way that has positive impacts on all other people.”










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