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Community Insights Society

Investing to Train More Ethical Engineers

Note: Paula Goldman, global lead of the Tech and Society Solutions Lab at Omidyar Network, will be among the speakers at Techonomy 2018 next month in Half Moon Bay, California. She will be speaking with Terah Lyons, executive director of the Partnership on Artificial Intelligence.

Move fast and break things. Grounded in disruptive progress, this mindset led to incredible innovation — but while the tech it created had positive impacts, some of it also came with unintended consequences.

Now it is time to embrace a new mantra — one that maintains technology’s tremendous potential for positive impact, but also builds robust guardrails around responsibility and accountability: “Move purposefully and fix things.” And we need to make sure this is instilled in the people who are building this technology, starting as early as their undergraduate training.

Computer science education is booming—to the tune of an incredible 74 percent rise in enrollment between 2009 and 2015.

Computer science education is booming — to the tune of an incredible 74 percent rise in enrollment between 2009 and 2015. Today, many of these programs aren’t preparing students to realize the full impact of the products they are creating. When ethics courses are available, they are often elective, intermediate, upper-level, or specialized (e.g., AI or Machine Learning ethics).

We need to better embed ethical considerations from day one.

Think about it. Engineers daily make decisions about how their algorithms will operate — and, as a result, who will get a loan, health insurance, or parole. Treating ethical reflection and discernment as an opt-in sends the wrong message to computer science students: that ethical thinking can be an ancillary exploration or an afterthought, that it’s not part and parcel of making code in the first place.

Integrating this approach into undergraduate technical training is only one solution of many that are needed to ensure that we harness the positive potential of technology and mitigate its downsides. That’s what led us to incubate the Responsible Computer Science Challenge (#ResponsibleCS), our latest collaboration in partnership with Mozilla, Schmidt Futures, and Craig Newmark Philanthropies, to jump-start and scale promising approaches to integrating ethical thinking and social consideration into undergraduate computer science education.

“In a world where software is entwined with so much of our lives, it’s not enough to simply know what software can do,” explains computer scientist Kathy Pham, adjunct lecturer at Harvard University and Mozilla fellow leading the challenge. “We must also know what software should and shouldn’t do, and train computer science students to think critically about how the code they create might one day be used.”

This sentiment is echoed by prominent industry leaders. Thirty-five leaders in technology and investment have articulated the need for the Responsible Computer Science Challenge in an open letter, stating that ethics in tech education “is a critically important step in advancing the industry we care about so deeply, ensuring a healthy, thriving internet and securing a bright human future.”

There have been a number of promising new developments on this front — ranging from ethical coding exercises to embedding philosophy teachers in computer science courses to writing new case studies that highlight the challenges students will face once they have entered industry.

The Responsible Computer Science Challenge is meant to empower graduating engineers to drive a culture shift in the tech industry founded on ethical thinking and future risk mitigation. Between December 2018 and July 2020, we will award up to $3.5 million in prizes to new and creative efforts to integrate ethics into technical computer science education.

The independent review and judges panel for the Responsible Computer Science Challenge were selected for their expertise in a variety of fields ranging from computer ethics to philosophy and law.

“Computer science and engineering have deep domain expertise, but when it comes to drawing on theories and methods that attend to people’s ethical rights and social needs, programs are just getting started,” said Mary L. Gray, one of the judges and senior researcher at Microsoft Research, fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, and associate professor in the School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering at Indiana University.

Omidyar Network’s Tech and Society Solutions Lab, where we work, was created to help shift the industry to a more thoughtful approach, supporting a movement that enables tech to realize its full potential as a positive force in the world. We recently helped launch another related initiative to create an Ethical Operating System so industry programmers can think through implications of design decisions. We need to co-create and invest in solutions at all levels of the tech ecosystem, including in undergraduate curriculum.

Our hope is that the ideas generated through the Responsible Computer Science Challenge will become normalized at all colleges and universities — especially since all the materials developed will be shared openly and widely distributed. If we can inspire students to take on the mantle of ethical technologists from Day 1 of their educational journey, we will have a sustained and lasting impact on our collective future.

You can learn more about the Responsible Computer Science Challenge and how to apply at ResponsibleCS.org. Join the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #ResponsibleCS.

Paula Goldman and Yoav Schlesinger work at Omidyar Network’s Tech and Society Solutions Lab. You can learn more about their work at omidyar.com/our-work/tech-and-society-solutions-lab. Hear more from Paula Goldman at Techonomy 2018 next month in Half Moon Bay, California.

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