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Solving The Tech Industry's Ethics Problem Could Start In The Classroom

Ethics is something the world's largest tech companies are being forced to reckon with. Facebook has been criticized for failing to quickly remove toxic content, including the livestream of the New Zealand mosque shooting. YouTube had to disable comments on videos of minors after pedophiles flocked to its platform.

Some companies have hired ethicists to help them spot some of these issues. But philosophy professor Abby Everett Jaques of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says that's not enough. It's crucial for future engineers and computer scientists to understand the pitfalls of tech, she says. So she created a class at MIT called Ethics of Technology.

As artificial intelligence continues to creep into our lives, Jaques worries about privacy. She's especially concerned about facial recognition "tracking us continuously and pervasively."

Studies have already shown that facial recognition misidentifies dark-skinned people. Google came under fire when its photo app labeled black people as gorillas.

"I'm an ethicist, and I'm especially interested in these questions around ethics of things we make," Jaques says.

In one exercise, Jaques has her class of 30 students play a game that's designed to make them think about how to achieve fairness.

Jaques places a large paper bag at the front of the room. The students don't know its exact contents — only that there are treats inside. And they have to figure out how best to share them.

Jaques hopes her students learn that ethics is essential to their work as engineers and computer scientists.
/ Courtesy of Kim Martineau, MIT Quest for Intelligence
Courtesy of Kim Martineau, MIT Quest for Intelligence
Jaques hopes her students learn that ethics is essential to their work as engineers and computer scientists.

"All right, let's hear some ideas," Jaques tells the class.

One student suggests they dump everything out of the bag and figure things out from there. Another says they should put someone in charge of deciding what to do.

After considering a dozen ideas, the class votes to do it this way: Each student is randomly assigned a number and allowed to pick something based on their number once the bag is opened.

Jaques empties the bag. Turns out it was filled with assorted baked goods, including rice crispy treats and chocolate chip cookies.

One student has a concern: "Sorry, can we like determine who's vegan here?"

The class didn't account for different dietary needs. And that's exactly what Jaques wants the students to think about.

"Our system didn't protect a certain important minority," she says. "So we're trying to build in something afterwards [to account for that]."

That resonates with Cel Skeggs, a senior studying computer science:

"I've been the person throughout the semester beating the dead horse of 'How does this technology affect LGBTQ people?' " Skeggs says. "To the extent that some people have suggested solutions to things and then when that question's imposed, they're like, 'Oh, I didn't actually think about that thing at all.' "

This comes into play in real life too. For instance, some transgender Uber drivers were kicked off the app when a security feature couldn't recognize them. The feature required drivers to take a selfie to verify their identity but didn't account for people who are transitioning.

Srinivas Kaza, a computer science major, says learning about ethics has influenced what companies he's willing to work for. "I eliminated a lot of choices," he says and laughs.

Kaza says he wants to work with image technology, but he's really concerned about doctored photos and the spread of misinformation. "I think it's just important to not contribute to the problem," he says.

And that's exactly why Jaques created this class — for these students to understand that ethics is essential to their work as engineers and computer scientists.

"Companies better get ready because the students are going to be asking a lot of questions," she says.

Copyright 2021 WBUR. To see more, visit WBUR.

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