Computer science ethics courses seek to stop Silicon Valley's mistakes before they happen

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The mistakes of Silicon valley in the last three years — unabated misinformation dissemination, unprecedented security breaches, and unchecked activity by propaganda networks — have eroded public confidence in what was once seen as the birthplace of ideas fit for a utopian society.

The question of who will prevent the next generation of computer scientists — 500,000 workers, according to Code.org — from repeating the same missteps has gone unanswered, until now. Universities are trying to prepare the technologists of tomorrow through a time-honored discipline: ethics.

Several top U.S. universities are creating courses focused on the ethics surrounding rapidly developing technology and in-demand skills such as artificial intelligence and computer science, according to the New York Times.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University, for example, are offering a joint course this semester titled, “The Ethics and Governance of Artificial Intelligence,” which will “pursue a cross-disciplinary investigation of the development and deployment of the opaque, complex adaptive systems that are increasingly in public and private use.” The course will look at how AI systems disseminate information, as well as the search for balance between innovation and regulation.

The “fake news” epidemic that played a role in the 2016 presidential election has revealed to the public that “technology is not neutral,” as Mehran Sahami, a computer science professor at Stanford University who formerly worked at Google as a senior research scientist, told the Times. “The choices that get made in building technology then have social ramifications.”

Sahami is in the process of developing a class with two other professors and a research fellow to help students identify “issues that we know in the next two, three, five, 10 years, the students who graduate from here are going to have to grapple with,” he said.

A new Cornell University course that launched last fall is seeking a similar outcome. The class, titled “Ethics and Policy in Data Science,” will teach students to recognize “where and why ethical issues arise applying data science to real world problems,” with students eventually gaining the skills to anticipate future problems.

The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), the organization responsible for accrediting university science and engineering programs, lists “an understanding of professional, ethical, legal, security and social issues and responsibilities” and “an ability to analyze the local and global impact of computing on individuals, organizations and society” as necessary student outcomes under its 2018-19 Criteria for Accrediting Computing Programs.

The emergence of machine learning and artificial intelligence — two technologies that have the power to alter virtually every aspect of society — has given new and critical importance to this checkpoint. Where schools previously taught ethics as a single unit in a larger course, educators now deem it necessary as a stand-alone course.

New York University and the University of Texas at Austin are also offering courses this semester examining the “ethical and real-world consequences” of data science technology.

As NYU professor Laura Norén said, “You can patch the software, but you can’t patch a person, if you damage someone’s reputation.”

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