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Teaching ethics to the innovators of tomorrow

People working within computer science often face pressing ethical issues. Is ethics education the key to building equitable, fair and inclusive technology products?

Until recently, most students who studied computer science, electrical engineering, and data science could graduate without taking an ethics course. However, since virtually every sphere of human life has been impacted by technology, if it is not well designed, we could be looking at some serious risks. So as technology ethics issues are increasingly permeating public awareness, it’s likely that the innovators of tomorrow will need to take more courses on technology ethics – even on a compulsory basis.

“Software is the backbone of society. If we made bad software – one that doesn't work, or doesn't work well or excludes people – then we have made a society that has those same problems. Software has a lot of power and I'm not sure people realised how powerful software was until recently,” says Dr. Lydia Chilton, assistant professor of computer science at the Columbia School of Engineering.

But with great power, comes great responsibility. That is why ethics should be at the heart of all technology.

Technology and AI are only as good or bad as the data they learn from.

Vesa-Pekka Grönfors, Director, Data & Digitalization, Wärtsilä Energy

“Who has the power to create with this technology and for whom are they creating it? This in and of itself is an ethical issue related to participation and access that we should all be invested in,” Megan Stariha, Associate Academic Director at d.school and Content Team at Rep Magazine, and Karen Ingram, emerging technology fellow at d.school, explain.

Some of the examples of this include questions on data – where do we collect it from and how do we use it? When it comes to technology, where is it most needed, what problems are we trying to solve and can the technology help address those problems? On the product side, we need to ask if this is an appropriate and ethical use for computer science.

"Technology and AI are only as good or bad as the data they learn from. Problems might arise from biases, overrepresentation and reinforcing existing patterns. A good place to start is promoting diversity of the data and relentless testing," says Vesa-Pekka Grönfors, Director, Data & Digitalization, Wärtsilä Energy. 

Ethics education for future innovators

Going forward, ethical considerations must be more than just a box to tick when designing new technologies.

As people understand more about how their field interacts with various emerging technologies, the conversation and learning around ethics, particularly equity, takes centre stage, Ingram explains. “The learning and ability to prototype implications and understand ethics should be foundational,” she adds.

Chilton, an expert in human-centred design that pairs computer scientists with students in the humanities such as social work, journalism or architecture and urban planning recalls a design flaw that came up during a class that was conducted to create technology for public libraries.  

The learning and ability to prototype implications and understand ethics should be foundational.

Karen Ingram, emerging technology fellow at d.school

“We emphasised how important it is to design for people of all backgrounds and all income levels. One important thing to remember is most people don't have laptops, they access the Internet with their phones. So the most inclusive way to design is to design for phones, not laptops. That surprised many of our students who didn't realise that their laptop was a luxury that most people don't have,” Chilton reveals.

It’s common for technology designers to assume that the user is like them. Therein lies the fundamental problem. Therefore, empathising with the user by reaching out and asking the right questions to get to know them are skills that are important. Ethics education trains students to appreciate these skills, acquire them or ask for help from people who have the talent to do so. Columbia University has introduced ethics in every technical class.

Designing programmes to instil an ethical mindset

“This sends the message that ‘no matter part of the technology stack you work on, you have to think about ethics.’” Chilton explains.

Making users and not technology the heart of the design process, allows engineers to collaborate and think about the impact of their technology even before they start building to avoid potentially harmful mistakes.

"Whether it's ethics in computer science or AI, I think the central policy is to "have a human mindset". The design should start from purpose rather than technology and its capabilities," Grönfors states.

Technologists, or anyone working in the space, bring their own identities and digital practices into what they create.

Megan Stariha, Associate Academic Director at d.school

Another approach is to centre ethics in technology around implications and build fluency in the impact technology can have.

“It’s not about becoming a coder; it’s about knowing what the code can do,” explain Stariha and Ingram.  

“We also believe that technology is personal. Technologists, or anyone working in the space, bring their own identities and digital practices into what they create. If we want emerging technology to be equitable, it needs to represent all of us,” Stariha concludes.

This story is part of our Tech ethics series. 

Written by

Maria Stambler