The Sunday Magazine

Teaching a code of ethics to tech workers before they write computer code

A new course at MIT teaches aspiring computer engineers about practical philosophy they can use to help solve the tech industry's ethics problem.
Students of the Catholic University of Lyon use laptops to take notes in a classroom, on September 18, 2015 in Lyon, eastern France. AFP PHOTO / JEFF PACHOUD (Photo credit should read JEFF PACHOUD/AFP/Getty Images) (Jeff Pachoud/AFP/Getty Images)
Abby Jaques teaching Ethics in Technology at MIT. (MIT SHASS Communications)

Three years ago, the Boston Public School Board decided to revamp school schedules to better suit the needs of students. The board wanted to push the starting bell for high school students back by almost an hour to allow teenagers more sleep, and to end school days earlier for elementary students so they could get home safely before dark. 

To do so, the school board needed to re-work the vast and complicated schedules of more than 600 school buses that, in total, logged an average of 72,000 kilometres every day.

The Board turned to a small team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to create an algorithm that would solve this problem and ensure the buses all ran on time. But the new start times were never implemented, as the changes that the algorithm introduced were seen as too disruptive for many families — some schools would have to push their start times forward from 8:30 a.m. to 7:15 a.m. — and the backlash that ensued forced the school board to scrap the plan.

While using artificial intelligence (AI) to find a solution to the problem, the MIT researchers forgot to consider that their AI may actually negatively affect those it was meant to serve.

The Boston school bus debacle did, however, help another MIT researcher develop a course for prospective computer engineers and software developers on the ethics behind technology and AI. The class offers students the opportunity to contemplate bias in AI, the unethical use of technology and the demise of privacy as we know it.

Abby Jaques, a former MIT philosophy instructor and the current interdisciplinary ethics fellow at the Stanford University Center for Ethics in Society, spoke with The Sunday Edition's guest host Peter Armstrong about why she developed the two courses entitled "The Ethics of Technology" and "Workshop in Ethical Engineering." Here are some highlights from her interview. Her comments have been edited for clarity and condensed.


Why the Boston Public School Board scheduling changes never happened

A key takeaway from that episode is that even if there's a sense in which we find a technological solution to a real problem, very often that's not enough to make it the case that we should implement that solution. In particular, there were real failures of communication with the affected people, the families of the students. That became a key feature of all the ways that I teach about ethics and technology. Even if you get it right, you can still get it wrong. Especially if you're not in conversation with all the people who will be affected by the things you build and create.

What I've tried to do is bridge the gap between philosophical theories and engineering practice in order to provide the kinds of tools and skills that engineers need.- Abby Jaques

How ethics and technology intertwine 

Some people wonder why we need to talk about the ethics of technology and why it should be taught as a separate thing from just regular ethics and philosophy. Then sometimes, when people think technology is going wrong, they'll think it must be a bad person making that technology. That's where you see memes about whether Mark Zuckerberg is a lizard person or not, and things like that. But in fact, what we find when we really look deeply, is that it's very rare that you have a moustache-twirling villain involved when things go wrong. It's often the case that good people make things that end up having very bad effects without realizing it. So the project of all of my teaching is really about helping people to identify and recognize the kinds of moral, political and social dimensions of the technology that we build, and then equipping them to address them.

A regular philosophy class will teach you about ethical theories. Those theories are interesting and important if you're a philosopher or just generally an interested human being. But engineers need things that they can integrate into the practice of engineering. They need steps that they can take while they're designing and building things. That's not what philosophical theories are built for. What I've tried to do is bridge the gap between philosophical theories and engineering practice in order to provide the kinds of tools and skills that engineers need.

There is simultaneously a kind of cynicism but also a real impulse to find creative solutions.-  Abby Jaques​​

How students in their late teens and 20s see the demise of privacy

On the one hand many of my students will say, "Privacy is dead, it's too late, it's all over now." But this is also the generation that made Snapchat a juggernaut because they loved the idea of messages that disappeared. They were aware much earlier than older generations that having everything on Facebook and out there in the public sphere forever was not a great idea. There is simultaneously a kind of cynicism but also a real impulse to find creative solutions.

Highlights of the course

Something that has been really fun to see are my students' final projects. They could either write a paper or they could make something. And because my students are mostly engineers, they made some really incredible things. They made games that would help people understand the ethical importance of particular technologies and one even made a choose-your-own-adventure-style game. Another student made a technology that would use Skype as a way to create a virtual private network (VPN) so that in countries that don't allow VPNs, you could transmit information securely because those countries still allow Skype. So it's a way to protect some privacy in places ruled by autocratic regimes

That's the kind of thing that really gives me hope. Once I helped them figure out what the strategies are for understanding, managing and communicating the ethical importance of what they make, they went out and made stuff that really had the potential to make things better.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.

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