Technical Ethics - How UT is bringing ethics to computer science

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Photo Credit: Annette Meyer | Daily Texan Staff

Alison Norman and Sarah Abraham, two computer science lecturers, are hoping to program ethics into the core of computer science at UT.

CS109, Ethical Foundations of Computer Science, is a one hour course taught by Norman and Abraham that aims to make ethics part of the conversation in computer science.

Although universities like Harvard and MIT are just now offering courses addressing ethical issues in technical fields, UT has offered an upper-division elective course called Contemporary Issues for many years now, Abraham said.

CS109, designed to introduce ethical questions and frameworks to computer scientists, was Abraham and Norman’s collaborative brainchild.

“I would say that we both independently thought (this course) was necessary,” Norman said. “I teach an upper-division course, Operating Systems, and it was becoming clear that my students hadn’t thought a lot about these ethical issues when they got there.”

Abraham described the course as a missing link in the computer science program.

“Our reasoning was that there’s this whole development through college where you’re thinking about your role in the world and where you want to be and imagining what kind of job you want,” Abraham said. “You should be thinking ethically before you start doing all of that, rather than at the end, when it’s like ‘Oh, by the way, you might want to think about this.’”

Computers touch almost every aspect of society today, which means that the implications of the decisions computer scientists make can be huge, Abraham said. Because of that, there’s virtually no part of society that doesn’t require ethical thinking.

“I think we’re sort of reaching this extreme edge as a culture, and a bunch of things that are wholly unacceptable are coming to light, the most obvious example right now being the ‘Me Too’ movement,” Abraham said. 

Ethical issues, like sexual harassment, are arising in the professional workplace as a whole, Abraham said. Workplace interactions are a big component of the course.

This class is discussion-based, and students are given cases relevant to a weekly topic to analyze.

“Our real goal is to help the students understand that these are open questions and that they deserve some consideration,” Norman said. “It’s really easy in our field to get caught up solving the puzzle. It’s really fun. It’s like, ‘We did it!’ And then it’s like, ‘Oh no, we did it.’ I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I just really want to create a workforce that is aware of the decisions that it’s making.”

Ethical decisions are present at almost all levels of the professional world, and the class is set up to look at problems from an increasingly expansive perspective, starting from the individual’s point of view, to ethics as an employee, a manager, and eventually, getting to the ethics of profit. 

“A lot of it falls under, ‘Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should,’” Norman said. “I think that a lot of the times, you can get really caught up in doing the really cool things and forget about the ethics of it all. But I think that’s true for humans in general.”

Aneesh Adhikari-Desai , a second-year computer science major who is taking the course, said that the biggest takeaway so far was increased awareness.

“You hear and see in the news about these specific instances happening, and you read it, and you’re like ‘oh, that’s unfortunate,’ and you move on,” Adhikari-Desai said. “But this class forces you to read articles and actually figure out what happened.”

Abraham and Norman are hoping to make this a required course for all computer science majors soon. 

“I think this upcoming generation is very motivated and ready to change the world, so I think students are both receptive to it and hearing it,” Abraham said. “But again, there’s been this cultural belief that we’re gonna make a lot of money and that’ll make us happy. And I think this generation is seeing that mindset clearly is not working — so what’s missing? I think what’s missing is liberal arts values and education, and a big part of that is ethics.”