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Elite Schools Introduce Technology Ethics Courses

Stanford, Harvard, MIT, Cornell, NYU and other elite universities have identified a mounting social problem— the exploitation of digital technology for criminal and other base purposes. These institutions are taking the lead in mitigating the extent of the problem through innovative courses that make student computer scientists aware of their ethical obligations to society.

Schools of law, medicine, business, and government have long provided required courses that focus on the ethical responsibilities of practitioners of these vocations. Students in the computer sciences fields have not, encouraging those in the field to be open to the “anything goes” mindset that has prevailed in the industry. This often results in unintended negative consequences that can’t be easily remedied.

There will always be those few who choose to use their proficiency in technology for anti-social behavior, including theft, espionage, thrill-seeking, and vandalism. Cybersecurity has evolved into a vital industry segment to counter this existential threat to the modern technological infrastructure. The American people and economy have become too reliant upon the integrity of the Internet and the inviolability of the connected databases to do otherwise.

Ethics education won’t affect the maliciously inclined, but it will impact the long-standing problem mentioned previously — the unintended consequences of the standard approach to development within the technology sector. A great many of the difficulties that arise are created by well-intentioned technologists who don’t consider the potential effects of the hardware, software, and networking innovations that they introduce to the computing and networking infrastructure.

Technology ethics education faces an uphill fight. There has been a “build-it-first and see what happens” code of behavior in the computing industry since it began.Ethics courses must counter a strong, ingrained approach that dismisses ethics as irrelevant.“Technology is not neutral”, saysMehranSahami, a Stanford professor who has also worked at Google as a senior research scientist. “The choices that get made in building technology have social ramifications.”

Many of the most severe current problems arise from the abuse of seemingly harmless social media platforms, including the careless or malicious posting of “fake news”. A recent New York Times article quotes Laura Noren, a postdoctoral fellow at NYU’s Center for Data Science at NYU who teaches a new ethics course, as saying, “We need to at least teach people that there’s a dark side to the idea that you should move fast and break things. You can patch the software, but you can’t patch a person if you damage someone’s reputation.”

Cornell University has recently introduced a course for students to learn to deal with ethical challenges such as a biased data set that includes too many higher-income households to be representative of the general population. Students also consider the suitability of algorithms as the means of automating critical life decisions like hiring or college admissions.

In another Cornell course, Karen Levy, an assistant professor in information science, is teaching students to be discerning regarding the ethics of technology companies.“A lot of ethically charged decision-making has to do with the choices a company makes: what products they choose to develop, what policies they adopt around user data,” Professor Levy said. “If data science ethics training focuses entirely on the individual responsibility of the data scientist, it risks overlooking the role of the broader enterprise.”

Harvard and MIT are cooperating on a new course on the ethics and regulation of artificial intelligence (AI) titled, “The Ethics and Governance of Artificial Intelligence.” Students pursue a cross-disciplinary investigation of the development and deployment of the esoteric, complex adaptive AI systems that are now in use. The course examines the need for balance between technological innovation and regulatory review.

The AI focus of the Harvard/MIT course is significant. One reason that universities are implementing technology ethics education is the proliferation of such powerful tools as massive database mining and machine learning, which is advanced computer coding that instantaneously learns new tasks and perform them. These systems are certain to alter human society dramatically, so universities are hastening to make students understand the potential consequences of AI.

Duke University offers a summer course titled, The Ethics of Artificial Intelligence. The course summary is provided below:

“What happens when you create an intelligent, autonomous robot and then limit its freedom? The field of artificial intelligence already permeates more aspects of our daily lives than we realize. It drives our cars, flies our planes, manages our money, and protects our safety. Its approach to more human-like thoughts and actions raises predictable complications. Are they to be considered tools or lifeforms? How can we ensure that these machines will respect our ethical and moral principles? Debate the laws by which these thinking machines should abide. Analyze and argue philosophical approaches to AI’s integration into society, and build the ethical foundation and psychological framework necessary to navigate this emerging landscape.”

The academic heart of California’s Silicon Valley is Stanford University, which recently revised its required course CS122 to include ethics. The goal of this course, Artificial Intelligence – Philosophy, Ethics, and Impact, is to equip students with the intellectual tools, ethical foundation, and psychological framework to successfully navigate the coming age of intelligent machines.Stanford’s course description encapsulates the seriousness with which the faculty approaches this issue.

“Recent advances in computing may place us at the threshold of a unique turning point in human history. Soon we are likely to entrust management of our environment, economy, security, infrastructure, food production, healthcare, and to a large degree even our personal activities, to artificially intelligent computer systems.

“The prospect of ‘turning over the keys’ to increasingly autonomous systems raises many complex and troubling questions. How will society respond as versatile robots and machine-learning systems displace an ever-expanding spectrum of blue- and white-collar workers? Will the benefits of this technological revolution be broadly distributed or accrue to a lucky few? How can we ensure that these systems respect our ethical principles when they make decisions at speeds and for rationales that exceed our ability to comprehend? What, if any, legal rights and responsibilities should we grant them? And should we regard them merely as sophisticated tools or as a newly emerging form of life?

IvySelect is a college admissions counseling firm that specializes in assisting well-qualified students to obtain admission at Ivy League and other top-tier colleges and universities. We have successfully guided students in gaining acceptance in computer science and other technology-related majors at the nation’s top schools, including all of those mentioned in this post as well as the other six Ivy League schools, Caltech, Carnegie Mellon, Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Washington University in St. Louis, UCLA, University of Michigan – Ann Arbor, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, University of Chicago, Northwestern, Emory, Wake Forest, and others.