A new pilot program at the University of Toronto will integrate ethics modules into existing undergraduate computer science courses with the aim of ensuring that future technologies are designed and deployed in ways that take into account their wider societal impact .
From learning the complex trade-off between data privacy and the public interest to making design decisions that impact marginalized communities, the pilot program – led by the Department of Computer Science in the Faculty of Arts and of Science and the Schwartz Reisman Institute for Technology and Society (SRI) – will teach computer science students the skills to identify potential ethical risks in the technologies they are learning to build.
The initiative aims to equip University of Toronto graduates, who could become global technology leaders, to make informed decisions about technology and its many effects on justice, healthcare, education, economies, human rights and beyond.
“We want to teach students how to think, not what to think,” says Sheila McIlraith, professor of computer science and director of research at SRI who co-leads the initiative, which includes academics specializing in ethics from the Department of Philosophy at the University of Toronto.
“We don’t proselytize on ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but we want students to identify ethical issues because, when they enter the workforce, they will be on the front lines. They will be the ones who write the code, develop the systems, use the data. It is imperative that ethical considerations become part of the fundamental design principles.
McIlraith points to the rapidly changing role of technology in society as evidence of the urgent need for such a program.
“In the old days, technologists built systems for a particular use or industry,” she says. “But now technology is no longer just for individual tasks like preparing tax returns or tracking company inventory. Technology has an impact on the way we all live, work and interact with each other. Much of the money and investment that powers our economy is tied to technology. And emerging tech companies are often run by young people who have just graduated from a computer science degree.
When SRI was founded in 2019, McIlraith was named as one of its first research executives. She quickly approached the ISR director Gillian K. Hadfield on the need for an integrated ethics initiative in IT, citing a similar pioneering program already underway at Harvard University. Hadfield immediately saw alignment with SRI’s mission to explore the dynamics between technology and the human agenda – and to solve problems at the intersection of technology and the public good.
McIlraith and Horton are joined in the squad by Benjamin wald, most recently a postdoctoral researcher at SRI and alumnus of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Toronto; Maryam majedi, post-doctoral researcher in the computer science department; and Emma McClure, doctoral student in the philosophy department.
“Incorporating ethical considerations into existing courses helps students see their relevance even as they learn computer science,” says Diane horton, professor, teaching branch, in the department which co-directs the pilot program with McIlraith. “The ethics modules are very closely associated with the technical content, so when the students are finally in the workplace, we hope that the two will remain very connected in their minds. “
Horton, who has taught in the department for 25 years, has seen firsthand how eager students are to talk about ethics. She also noted that they bring different perspectives to the conversation.
“One student had a very intense appreciation for the vulnerability of the homeless population,” says Horton, “and she learned this from personal experience. Another student spoke about the hospital where he works and how private medical data is so carefully protected.
“There has been so much curiosity on the part of the students,” adds Majedi of the initiative so far. “They ask a lot of questions and come up with interesting and creative ideas. Some are so excited and they stay long after school to talk to us.
Majedi says his own data privacy research has highlighted a gap in curricula where ethics training for students is badly needed.
“Teaching ethics in computer science is essential,” she says, “because these students will be responsible for many important tasks in the future. “
Wald and McClure both say they are delighted to see the enthusiasm of computer science students when it comes to addressing ethical issues.
“I think students really want to have these critical thinking tools because it’s clear that they’ve already considered these issues,” says McClure.
“Sometimes a computer science student may recognize a potential ethical problem,” says Wald, “but may not know how it was discussed by other people, or where to find the right resources to resolve it. They might think, “How can I put my worry into words? I hope we can give them the tools to do so.
The Integrated Ethics Initiative will produce a longitudinal study to inform its future directions. The goal is for every computer science student to meet ethics modules at several points in their U of T computer science program – and bring this information to their future career.
“Big tech companies like Apple often employ people in specialized ethics roles, but our program aims to equip the people who actually build the technologies in a company like this,” says McClure. “In this way, ethical behavior comes from the design of technologies. It comes from below instead of being imposed from the outside by an “ethics specialist”.
McIlraith and Horton both credit Harvard’s Barbara Grosz and Jeff Behrends for supporting the University of Toronto team in the early stages of the design and development of the pilot program. Grosz is one of the founders of Harvard’s Embedded EthiCS program, while Behrends is a faculty team leader.
The University of Toronto team aims to engage other professors, instructors and researchers as it grows, especially computer science professors who have already been teaching undergraduate courses in the core program since. years.
“In the longer term, we aspire to have ethical considerations a cornerstone of many of our technology-driven disciplines within the university,” says McIlraith. “One of our goals is to create a winning strategy so that this pilot can turn into something bigger.”