What should college students know about ethics and technology? Help us make a 101 course, here

Bob Sullivan

What should computer science students — all college students — learn about the intersection of ethics and technology? @ethicaltechorg, founded by two Duke University students, (I’m an adviser) is crowdsourcing the curriculum for Tech Ethics 101. Thoughts here, or at the link: https://ethical-tech.org/request-for-collaboration/

Algorithms run our lives today. They decide what homes we should buy, who we should date, what jobs we are qualified for, what updates and Tweets we see, and even welfare payments, mortgage loans, and how long convicts must remain in prison. Complex formulas make all these decisions in darkness, their calculations unknown to their subjects, often even beyond the understanding of their data scientist creators. Operating beyond reproach inside a black box, computers have become our puppet-masters, as consumers buy things, choose mates, and make political decisions based on realities calculated on their behalf.

But like all systems that operate in secret, algorithms have a dark side. They can lie. They remain vulnerable to hacking and reverse-engineering. And they reinforce some of society’s worst elements, like racial, class, and gender bias.

I’m really concerned about this; I believe everyone in the world should be. So today I’m announcing that I’ve joined a new group called Ethical Tech, which collaborates with groups like the Duke University Center on Law and Technology; I’m a member of the organization’s advisory board.  Founders Cassi Carley and Justin Sherman, both of Duke, have ambitious plans for the organization.

We join a rich set of organizations springing up lately — long overdue — to deal with runaway technology and its unintended consequences.  The Center for Humane Tech opened its doors earlier this year, born out of frustration with Facebook, promising to help programmers think more about what they are making. Just this week, my pal Julia Angwin announced a publication called The Markup, funded by Craig Newmark from Craigslist. It will seek to add journalistic accountability to the world of technology.  So, energy around this topic is brewing.

At Ethical Tech, our  first project involved bias in algorithms used by judges around the country to decide how long convicted criminals should spend in prison. Several other projects are in the works, including design of a tech-ethics class for college students.

I hope you will consider helping. What should future programmers know? What should future digital citizens know? How can we arm them for this ongoing information war; and how can we convince engineers to use their math skills for good instead of evil?

I often ask a basic question when I am in groups, like this: “The Internet — good or bad?”  Yes, yes, it’s done an amazing job spreading information around the world. But it’s done an even better job spreading BAD information around the world. Some research suggests that more people think the world is flat today than 10 years ago.  So, that’s bad.  But I doesn’t have to be that way. (And anyway, I think the Internet is good, but it’s more a 60-40 thing). We can’t afford to be passengers in this digital journey any longer, however. We have to make deliberate choices, every day, to make sure tech enhances our humanity instead of destroying it.  That will require concentrated effort across all sorts of party, racial, gender, and ideological lines.  We’re going to have to talk to each other. So, let’s get started.

What should computer science students — all college students — learn about the intersection of ethics and technology? @ethicaltechorg, based at Duke, (I’m an adviser) is crowd sourcing the curriculum for Tech Ethics 101. Thoughts here, or at the link: https://ethical-tech.org/request-for-collaboration/

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *