Harvard, MIT, and Stanford say it’s more important than ever to recognize the ramifications of AI technology

Until recently, it didn’t seem ethics was all that relevant to engineers. Sure, many students are required to take ethics courses as part of their computer science and engineering programs. But some high-tech leaders have displayed the attitude of build it first and then figure out the consequences later.

The impact that autonomous and intelligent systems might have on society is becoming more concerning to engineering schools and other observers, however. Take, for example, the growing opposition to Rekognition, Amazon’s face-surveillance technology. The American Civil Liberties Union recently found that the system’s algorithm made a number of false identifications, especially for people of color. Sold to law enforcement agencies, Rekognition can identify, track, and analyze people in real time and recognize up to 100 people in a single image. It can quickly compare information it collects against databases featuring tens of millions of faces. The ACLU says the software might be used to track people going about their daily lives or might misidentify innocent people as suspects in a crime.

Google experienced backlash when people discovered the company was working with the U.S. Department of Defense on Project Maven, an AI program to analyze drone footage. The contract with the Pentagon called for the company to develop machine learning algorithms. Some Google employees were outraged that the company would offer resources to the military for such surveillance technology, according to Gizmodo, while others argued that the project raised important ethical questions about the development and use of machine learning. Google since has decided it will not renew the contract.


Cornell, Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and the University of Texas recently introduced courses that put more emphasis on ethics when designing autonomous and intelligent systems, according to a New York Times articleabout their new offerings.

Students who take Cornell’s ethics and policy in data science course can learn how to deal with challenges such as biased data sets.

Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center and the MIT Media Lab joined forces to offer an ethics and governance of AI course, which focuses on the technology’s ethical, legal, and policy implications.

“Because such tools could ultimately alter human society, universities are rushing to help students understand the potential consequences,” Joi Ito told The New York Times. He’s the director of the media lab.

Stanford’s computer science department plans to offer a new course on ethics, public policy, and computer science, according to the article. “It’s about finding or identifying issues that we know in the next two, three, five, 10 years the students who graduate from here are going to have to grapple with,” Mehran Sahami, a computer science professor at Stanford, told the Times. Sahami was the co-chair of the ACM/IEEE Computer Society joint task force on computer science curricula for 2013. The group created guidelines for college programs at an international level.

“Technology is not neutral,” Sahami said. “The choices that get made in building technology have social ramifications.”

According to IEEE, universities need to put more emphasis on teaching the next generation of engineers about ethics. To that end, the IEEE TechEthicsprogram held a panel discussion during its conference in October. TechEthics’ goal is to showcase IEEE’s role as a thought leader when it comes to the ethical and societal implications of technology and, in the process, establish the organization as a trusted resource.

One of the panelists was Deborah G. Johnson, a retired professor of applied ethics at the University of Virginia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, in Charlottesville.

The way engineering ethics classes used to be taught was too narrow: focused on complying with codes of ethics, Johnson said, adding, “Technology shapes and is shaped by society. They’re inextricably intertwined.

“We have to keep stressing that engineering is a social activity,” she said. “It’s part of engineering to anticipate—to not put blinders on but to act on this idea that what [engineers are] doing has social effects.”

Video: IEEE.tv . In this panel discussion held during the IEEE Tech Ethics conference in October, Deborah G. Johnson discusses the need for budding engineers to consider the social effects of technology.

IEEE offers several online courses for students or anyone who wants to learn more about AI and ethics.

The organization is also working to help educate, train, and empower those already involved in developing technologies to make ethical considerations a priority through its Global Initiative on Ethics of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems.

The initiative brought together more than 200 experts to collaborate on the “Ethically Aligned Design” report. Released last year, the document strives to address how to design such systems with moral values and ethical principles in mind so they can behave in a way that is beneficial and that builds trust. That includes respecting individuals’ privacy and being accountable for decisions. The latest version is “Ethically Aligned Design: A Vision for Prioritizing Human Well-being With Autonomous and Intelligent Systems.”