Design decisions often treat people unequally. Take a bike for example. Bicycles provide a relatively inexpensive, healthy and environmentally friendly means of transportation to billions of people around the world. However, every bike that enters the market automatically excludes those with certain disabilities.
“Even with the most benevolent technologies, regardless of our moral good intentions, we are inevitably still discriminatory,” says Theresa Gao, an undergraduate at MIT who majored in two majors in computer science, brain and cognitive science.
This discriminating design concept was that of Gao and about 40 other MIT students discovered this summer in 24.133 (Experimental Ethics), a 10-week course offered by the Social and Ethical Responsibilities of Computing Group at MIT Schwarzman College, Office of Experimental Learning and Department of Linguistics and Philosophy.
Now in its third year, the course covers ethical concepts and frameworks – such as the relationship between science and technology and justice and how to deal with ethical conflicts responsibly – while challenging students to consider these principles during their day to day summer internships, jobs or research experiences.
For Gao, who interned at Microsoft this summer, this has meant pausing to consider how the products she helps design ultimately affect those who use them, and the broader impact of her work and that of the employer she works for on the world.
“It has been really helpful to think about how this training fits into my career. What factors should I take into account from an ethics point of view when deciding which career path I want to pursue?” she adds.
The course is designed to give students an opportunity to reflect on ethics and make ethical decisions through the lens of their own experiences, allowing students to explore the connections between ethical theory and ground-level practice, says Marion Polico, a postdoctoral researcher in ethics. and technology at Schwarzman College of Computing and founder and director of the Experimental Ethics Course.
While students are not required to take the course alongside a job, internship, or research experience, doing so gives them an opportunity to reflect on their future careers and think about the impact they want to make on the world, says Kate Trimble, Associate Dean and Director of the Learning Office. Experimental.
“This model is particularly interesting because during internships, students often try on different professional identities. And we want them to be ethics professionals. So, we want them to think about the ethical dimensions of this career path, and then when they go out into the world, they bring That perspective is with them, she says.
Make morals personal
Students meet virtually, and students participate in weekly discussion groups with five to 10 peers, each led by a teaching colleague, during which they learn about ethical frameworks and discuss case studies. Weekly topics include: Decision making with stakeholders in mind (include articles on the ethical implications of mobility apps) and whether technology can be value-neutral (based on the 1980 paper “Do Artworks Have Politics?” by Langdon Winner).
Based on class discussions, goals, and experiences in the summer programs, students also complete a final project that they present to their peers and the broader MIT community at the annual MIT Ethics and Sustainability Fair.
Through it all, they are encouraged to explore how ethical dilemmas are addressed during their summer activities and beyond.
“For an ethics class where the focus is on students’ personal experiences, this is both a challenge and an opportunity. This requires that students feel comfortable sharing and discussing their experiences on personal and sometimes challenging topics, such as power dynamics in the workplace and the role of technology in systems of oppression. But if We were able to create a space where students feel empowered to think about some of these really challenging ethical questions, it could be a really great opportunity for them to explore their values and think about their future as technical experts,” says Policault.
While creating these spaces is not an easy task, the teaching team that facilitates weekly discussions works hard to engage students. They must take lofty philosophical frameworks and bring them down to a grounded and immediate level for students.
Teaching fellow Javier Aguera, who is completing a master’s degree in engineering and management, has been interested in ethics since starting his first startup as a teenager. He joined the course as a staff member last year, looking to delve deeper into these thorny issues while helping to guide and inspire others. He was impressed by how deeply the students thought about their personal thoughts each week.
“For many of these students, this is the first time they have truly thought about their values. Sometimes these topics bring great achievement and personal growth, but still within a classroom environment, which can be difficult to balance. You don’t want to It pushes them a lot, but still challenges them in a way that they learn and grow,” says Aguera.
From lofty frameworks to concrete lessons
Maria Carrera learned a lot about the ethical dimensions of algorithm design during the course. PhD student in the Department of Biology, focusing on cryo-electron microscopy and interested in using machine learning to enhance technology efficiency and effectiveness. But it didn’t really stop to consider the ethical concerns of machine learning, like data privacy.
With her latest project, in which she explored the ethical implications of using a collaborative machine learning technique known as federated learning to build models using private patient data, she explored the limitations of this technology. For example, standardized learning requires goodwill and trust among all participants who collaboratively train the model, she says.
“Now when I read these scientific papers or think about my own research, I find that I often apply my ethical lenses and think about the unintended consequences. Machine learning in healthcare has been very useful, but there are a lot of very valid privacy concerns,” says Carrera. This chapter has really broadened my horizons.”
For Margaret Wang, a sophomore majoring in computer science who spent the summer as a software development intern at Amazon, spending some time thinking about ethical frameworks helped her be more confident in her choices.
She chose to study cookie consent policies for her final project. Cookies are small pieces of data that websites use to store personal information and track user behavior. Wang says that companies often design website banners or popups with specific color schemes or layouts, so they encourage users to quickly accept all cookies with a single click of the mouse.
“The most important takeaway from my project is how easy it is to give up their personal data and not think about it,” she says. “In the end, this course really taught me to spend more time thinking about my values to get a better understanding of the things that matter to me when I make academic or career choices.”
This is one life lesson that Polico and Trimble hope students can learn from empirical ethics. At the same time, they are looking to reach more MIT students.
This year, they expanded through a partnership with the 6-A Industrial Program, where mechanical engineering students pursue training in companies during the academic year; Experimental ethics is now included as a 6-A requirement. The Office of Experiential Learning, in collaboration with the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, also launched a new course last year using the same sustainability-focused model.
“I hope these courses will inspire students to go a little deeper and spark their interest and curiosity about ethics and sustainability, because there are wonderful communities working on both topics at MIT,” Trimble says. “We want to graduate students who feel a responsibility to make the world a better place, and I hope these classes will help prepare them to do just that.”