Design decisions often treat people unequally. Take a bicycle for example. Bicycles offer billions of people around the world a relatively inexpensive, healthy and environmentally friendly means of transportation. Yet every bike that comes onto the market automatically excludes people with certain disabilities.
“Even with the most benevolent technology, no matter how well we mean ethically, we inevitably discriminate,” says aspiring MIT senior Teresa Gao, who is majoring in computer science and brain and cognitive sciences.
This concept of discriminatory design was explored this summer by a Gao and about 40 other MIT students in 24.133 (Experiential Ethics), a 10-week course taught 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.
The course, now in its third year, covers ethical concepts and frameworks – such as the relationship between science, technology and justice and how to deal responsibly with ethical conflict – and challenges students to consider these principles in their daily work during summer internships , jobs or research experience.
For Gao, who internd at Microsoft this summer, that meant pausing to think about how the products she helps create might ultimately impact those who use them, and the broader implications of her work and the their employer could have on the world.
“It was really helpful to think about how this internship fits into my career. From an ethical point of view, what factors should I consider when deciding on the career path I want to pursue?” She adds.
The course is designed to give students the opportunity to think about ethics and ethical decision-making through the lens of their own experiences and to allow students to explore connections between ethical theory and practice at a fundamental level, says Marion Boulicault, postdoctoral researcher for Ethics and Technology at Schwarzman College of Computing and Founder and Director of the Experiential Ethics course.
Although students do not have to complete the course in conjunction with a job, internship, or research experience, it gives them an opportunity to reflect on their future careers and reflect on the impact they want to make on the world, says Kate Trimble, Senior Associate Dean and director of the Office of Experiential Learning.
“This model is particularly interesting because students often try on different professional identities during internships. 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 go out into the world, they bring that perspective with them,” she says.
Make ethics personal
Students meet virtually and participate in weekly discussion groups with five to ten peers, each led by a graduate teaching fellow, where they learn about ethical frameworks and discuss case studies. Weekly topics include: stakeholder decision-making (with articles on the ethical implications of navigation apps) and whether technology can be value-neutral (adapted from a 1980 research paper Do Artifacts Have Politics? by Langdon winners).
Based on class discussions, their goals, and experiences in summer programs, students also complete a final project to present to their peers and the broader MIT community at the annual MIT Ethics and Sustainability Student Showcase.
All of this encourages them to explore how they would approach ethical dilemmas during their summer activities and beyond.
“For an ethics class that focuses on the personal experiences of the students, this is both a challenge and an opportunity. It requires students to feel comfortable openly sharing and discussing their experiences on sometimes quite personal and difficult issues, such as power dynamics in the workplace and the role of technology in systems of oppression. But if we can create a space where students feel empowered to think about some of these really tough ethical questions, it can be a truly amazing opportunity for them to explore their values and reflect on their future as technologists,” says Boulicault .
While creating these spaces is no easy task, the team of fellow teachers who moderate weekly discussions work hard to keep students engaged. They must take lofty philosophical frameworks and bring them down to a level that is grounded and immediate for the students.
Lecturer Javier Agüera, who is pursuing a Masters 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 to delve deeper into these sensitive issues while mentoring and inspiring others. He was struck by how deeply the students invested in their personal reflections each week.
“For many of these students, this is the first time they really think about their values. Sometimes these themes lead to great insights and personal growth, but still in a classroom that can be difficult to balance. You shouldn’t push them too hard, but still challenge them in a way that allows them to learn and grow,” says Agüera.
From sublime frames to concrete lessons
Maria Carreira learned a lot about the ethical dimensions of algorithm design during the course. As 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 this technique. But she hadn’t really paused to consider machine learning ethical concerns like privacy.
She explored the limits of the technique in her final project, which explored the ethical implications of using a collaborative machine learning technique known as federated learning to create models with private patient data. For example, federated learning requires good intentions and trust between all participants training the model together, she says.
“Now when I read these academic papers or reflect on my own research, I find that I often put on my ethical glasses and think about unintended consequences. Machine learning in healthcare has been very beneficial, but there are many very legitimate privacy concerns. This course really broadened my horizons,” says Carreira.
Margaret Wang, a sophomore with a computer science major who spent the summer as a software development intern at Amazon, helped her take the time to think through ethical frameworks to become more confident in her decisions.
She decided to study the Cookie Consent Policy for her graduation project. Cookies are small pieces of data 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 just one click, Wang says.
“My biggest takeaway from my project is how easy it is for people to just give out their personal information and not even think about it,” she says. “Ultimately, this course really taught me to spend more time thinking about my values to get a better sense of what’s important to me when making academic or professional decisions.”
This is a life lesson that Boulicault and Trimble hope students will learn from experiential ethics. At the same time, they want to reach even more MIT students.
This year they expanded through a partnership with the 6-A Industrial Program, in which mechanical engineering students intern with companies during the academic year; Ethics of experience is now included as a 6-A requirement. Last year, the Office for Experiential Education, in cooperation with the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, launched a new course based on the same model with a focus on sustainability.
“I hope these courses will inspire students to dig a little deeper and spark their interest and curiosity about ethics and sustainability, because MIT has great communities working on both of these topics,” says Trimble. “We want to be graduates who are committed to making the world a better place, and I hope these courses will help prepare them for that.”