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Embedded EthiCS: Integrating Ethics Across CS Education

Socrates, illustration

Credit: Charis Tsevis

The particular design of any technology may have profound social implications. Computing technologies are deeply intermeshed with the activities of daily life, playing an ever more central role in how we work, learn, communicate, socialize, and participate in government. Despite the many ways they have improved life, they cannot be regarded as unambiguously beneficial or even value-neutral. Recent experience shows they can lead to unintended but harmful consequences. Some technologies are thought to threaten democracy through the spread of propaganda on online social networks, or to threaten privacy through the aggregation of datasets that include increasingly personal information, or to threaten justice when machine learning is used in such high-stakes, decision-making contexts as loan application reviews, employment procedures, or parole hearings.1,3,8,12,17,23 It is insufficient to ethically assess technology after it has produced negative social impacts, as has happened, for example, with facial recognition software that discriminates against people of color and with self-driving cars that are unable to cope with pedestrians who jay-walk.13,15 Developers of new technologies should aim to identify potential harmful consequences early in the design process and take steps to eliminate or mitigate them. This task is not easy. Designers will often have to negotiate among competing values—for instance, between efficiency and accessibility for a diverse user population, or between maximizing benefits and avoiding harm. There is no simple recipe for identifying and solving ethical problems.

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Computer science education can help meet these challenges by making ethical reasoning about computing technologies a central element in the curriculum. Students can learn to think not only about what technology they could create, but also whether they should create that technology. Learning to reason this way requires courses unlike those currently standard in computer science curricula. A range of university courses on topics in areas of computing, ethics, society and public policy are emerging to meet this need. Some cover computer science broadly, while others focus on specific problems like privacy and security; typically, these classes exist as stand-alone courses in the computer science curriculum. Others have integrated ethics into the teaching of introductory courses on programming, artificial intelligence, and human-computer interaction.4,5,22


Simon Rogerson

This is a paper about Harvard reinventing the wheel of computer ethics education which has a long and comprehensive history stretching back to the 1980s (see, for example, Aiken, 1983, Johnson, 1985, and Miller, 1988). It offers little new insight, does not link to a 40 year history and experience (for example see Pecorino and Maner, 1985; Martin, Huff, Gotterbarn and Miller, 1996; and Bynum and Rogerson 2004), nor does it appear to connect with ACM's own Integrity Project based upon the new ACM Code of Ethics. It is disappointing that it should be heralded as groundbreaking when it is an elitist approach focusing on a very small proportion of those engaging in computing.

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