Design decisions often treat people unequally. Take a bicycle, for example. Bicycles provide a relatively cheap, healthy and environmentally friendly mode of transportation for billions of people around the world. Yet every bike that hits the market automatically excludes people with certain disabilities.
“Even with the most benevolent technology, no matter how ethically well-meaning we are, we still inevitably discriminate,” said rising MIT official Teresa Gao, who has a dual major in computer science and brain science and cognitive.
This concept of discriminatory design was explored by Gao and about 40 other MIT students this summer in 24.133 (Experiential Ethics), a 10-week course offered by the Social and Ethical Responsibilities of Computing group at MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, the Office of Experiential Learning, and the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy.
Now in its third year, the course covers ethical concepts and frameworks – such as the relationship between science, technology and justice and how to manage ethical conflicts responsibly – while challenging students to consider these principles in their daily work in the summer. internships, jobs or research experiences.
For Gao, who interned at Microsoft this summer, that meant pausing to think about how the products she helps design might ultimately affect those who use them, and the impact wider than her work. and that of his employer could have on the world.
“It’s been really beneficial to think about how this internship fits into my career. What factors should I consider ethically when deciding which career path I want to follow? ” She adds.
The course has been designed to give students the opportunity to reflect on ethics and ethical decision-making through the lens of their own experiences, allowing students to explore the links between ethical theory and practice in ground level, explains Marion Boulicault, postdoctoral researcher in ethics. and Technology at Schwarzman College of Computing and Founder and Director of the Experiential Ethics Course.
Although students are not required to take the course in conjunction with a job, internship or research experience, it gives them the opportunity to reflect on their future careers and reflect on the impact they want to have on the world, says Kate Trimble, senior associate dean and director of the Office of Experiential Learning.
“This model is particularly interesting because during the internships the students often try out different professional identities. And we want them to be ethical professionals. So we want them to think about the ethical dimensions of that career path, and then when they step out into the world, they bring that perspective with them,” she says.
Meeting virtually, students participate in weekly focus groups with five to 10 peers, each led by a graduate researcher, during which they learn about ethical frameworks and discuss case studies. Weekly topics include: decision-making with stakeholders in mind (incorporating articles on the ethical implications of navigation apps) and whether technology can be value-neutral (relying on a 1980 research paper entitled “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” by Langdon Winner).
Based on class discussions, their goals, and their experiences in the summer programs, students also complete a final project that they present to their peers and the wider MIT community at the annual Student Showcase. on MIT’s Ethics and Sustainability.
Through it all, they are encouraged to explore how they would address ethical dilemmas during their summer activities and beyond.
“For an ethics course where the focus is on students’ personal experiences, this presents a challenge and an opportunity. This requires students to feel comfortable sharing and openly discussing their experiences on sometimes quite personal and difficult topics, such as power dynamics in the workplace and the role of technology in work systems. oppression. But if we can create a space where students feel empowered to think about some of these really tricky ethical questions, it can be a really amazing opportunity for them to explore their values and think about their future as technologists,” says Boulicault.
Although creating these spaces is not an easy task, the team of teachers who facilitate the weekly discussions work hard to involve the students. They must take lofty philosophical frameworks and bring them down to grounded and immediate for students.
Professor Javier Agüera, who is finishing a master’s degree in engineering and management, has been interested in ethics since he founded his first startup as a teenager. He joined the course as a TF last year, seeking to dig deeper into these tricky questions while helping to mentor and inspire others. He was impressed with the depth of thought the students put into their personal reflections each week.
“For many of these students, this is the first time they really think about their values. Sometimes these topics lead to great accomplishments and personal growth, but always in a classroom setting, which can be difficult to balance. You don’t want to push them too much, but still challenge them in a way that they learn and grow,” says Agüera.
Noble frameworks with concrete lessons
Maria Carreira learned a lot about the ethical dimensions of algorithm design during the course. A PhD student in the Department of Biology, she focuses on cryo-electron microscopy and is interested in using machine learning to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the technique. But she hadn’t really stopped to consider the ethical concerns of machine learning, such as data privacy.
Through her final 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 the technique. For example, federated learning requires good intentions and the trust of all participants who train the model collaboratively, she says.
“Now when I read these scientific papers or reflect on my own research, I find that I often apply my ethical goals and think about unintended consequences. Machine learning in healthcare has been very beneficial, but there are many very valid privacy concerns. This course really broadened my horizons,” says Carreira.
For Margaret Wang, a sophomore and computer science major who spent the summer as a software development intern at Amazon, taking the time to think 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 data files that websites use to store personal information and track user behavior. Companies often design website banners or pop-ups with specific color schemes or layouts to encourage users to quickly accept all cookies with the click of a mouse, Wang says.
“What I take away most from my project is how easy it is for people to give out their personal data without even thinking about it,” she says. “Ultimately, this course really taught me to spend more time reflecting on my values to get a better sense of the things that are important to me when making academic or career choices.”
It is a Boulicault and Trimble Hope life lesson that students draw from experiential ethics. At the same time, they are looking to reach even more MIT students.
This year they have expanded through a partnership with the Industrial 6-A program, in which mechanical engineering students complete internships at companies during the academic year; Experiential ethics is now included as a 6-A requirement. The Office of Experiential Learning, in conjunction 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 dig a little deeper and spark their interest and curiosity in ethics and sustainability, because there are great communities working on both topics at MIT,” says Trimble. “We want to be graduate students who feel responsible for making the world a better place, and I hope these courses will help prepare them to do so.”