How Harvard and Stanford are addressing the "dark side" of tech culture

Many of today's students dream of landing a job in Silicon Valley.

And it's no surprise. Tech jobs consistently receive high ratings for salary, worker satisfaction, and work-life balance. In fact, on a 2017 U.S. News & World Report ranking of the best jobs for millennials, three out of the top five jobs were based in computer science.

But few students are prepared to wrestle with the ethical dilemmas that arise in technology, reports Natasha Singer for the New York Times.

And as top tech companies come under fire for "fake news and other troubles," campus leaders are working to instill an ethical code among their computer science students, writes Singer.

At Stanford University, three professors and a research fellow are designing a computer science ethics course. The course is focused on the moral issues that future graduates will have to address in the coming years, says Mehran Sahami, a computer science professor and co-developer of the course.

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Students will consider topics like privacy and civil rights from the perspectives of software engineers and policy makers, says Rob Reich, a political science professor at Stanford. Students need to understand that the choices made when "building technology... have social ramifications," adds Sahami.

Similarly, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are teaming up to offer a new course on ethics in artificial intelligence, writes Singer.

The ethics that underlie computer science aren't as pronounced as the morality in medicine, says Joi Ito, the director of the MIT Media Lab who is co-teaching the Harvard-MIT course. But as tools like machine learning become more popular and powerful, educators are rushing to help students think through the potential consequences, he adds.

And at Cornell University, a recently introduced data science course asks students to grapple with moral dilemmas, such as biased data sets, writes Singer. The course was designed to help students think through the ethical gray areas that data scientists face every day, says Solon Barocas, an assistant information science professor at Cornell.

At the very least, colleges need to teach students that there is an ethical "dark side" to the tech industry's build-first-ask-later mentality, says Laura Norén, a postdoctoral associate at the Center for Data Science at New York University. And the institutions that are cultivating the next generation of tech leaders have a responsibility to teach their students ethics, says Jeremy Weinstein, a political science professor at Stanford (Singer, New York Times, 2/20/18).

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