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Embedded EthiCS: integrating ethics across CS education
Grosz B., Grant D., Vredenburgh K., Behrends J., Hu L., Simmons A., Waldo J.  Communications of the ACM 62 (8): 54-61, 2019. Type: Article
Date Reviewed: Aug 27 2020

Motivated by a plethora of exemplary “intelligent” information enterprises, this article presents results related to Embedded EthiCS, “a Harvard-based pilot program [that] integrates class sessions on ethical reasoning into courses throughout its computer science curriculum.” Example multidisciplinary elective courses include “Privacy and Technology” and “Intelligent Systems: Design and Ethical Challenges.”

The authors observe:

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.

Accordingly, 14 modules are described, including “Networks: Facebook, Fake News, and the Ethics of Censorship,” “Design of Useful and Usable Interactive Systems: Inclusive Design and Equality of Opportunity,” and “Machine Learning: Machine Learning and Discrimination.”

Harvard’s magnificent curriculum advancement, which converges courses in ethics with courses in computer science (CS), recreates the disposition of earlier generations, when students of technology were expected to be well read in philosophy, history, the arts, and (of course) ethics. Nevertheless, there is neither evidence for nor proof of the belief that knowledge of such literature produces more ethical technocrats. Rather, it would seem more progressive to converge training groups and psychotherapy with applied science and CS studies to produce technicians and decision makers who are more likely to abhor draconian systems proposals and their potentially horrific anti-human implementation consequences.

Once fashionable, albeit now apparently forgotten, academic technology ethics discussions (post–World War I and post-Holocaust) pondered how so many highly educated scientists and engineers could have created such scales of barbaric death and destruction, without substantial individual protests or sabotage. Recall a triple-step ballroom dance called the cha-cha, characterized by repeating intervals of two steps forward and one step back. Perhaps, Harvard will take the second step forward to enable its now literature-literate students to mature by fostering their improved mental/moral health in addition to laudatory external exposures to Embedded EthiCS.

Reviewer:  Chaim Scheff Review #: CR147047
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