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It’s time Silicon Valley learns some ethics, say universities

A robot with Nissan logo is seen before then news conference by executives of Dongfeng Motor Co in Beijing. Source: Reuters/Damir Sagolj

US universities are designing ethics courses to ensure situations like those in Black Mirror, the Netflix series on the nightmares of technology, remain in the realm of television.

The New York Times reported that Ivy League schools are introducing courses aimed at getting students to consider ramifications of upcoming innovations, like autonomous weapons or self-driving cars, before selling them.

“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,” said Mehran Sahami, a computer science professor at Stanford.

The former senior research scientist at Google is part of a team at Stanford developing a computer science ethics course for next year.

“Technology is not neutral,” said Sahami.

“The choices that get made in building technology then have social ramifications.”

Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) will be jointly offering a course titled “The Ethics and Governance of Artificial Intelligence” while the University of Texas at Austin has just introduced a new computer science course on the real-world consequences of technology.

It didn’t use to be this way. In Silicon Valley, engineers build products first and ask for forgiveness later.

“Compared to transportation or doctors, your daily interaction with physical harm or death or pain is a lot less if you are writing software for apps,” MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito said.

First, they make coffee. But what next? Source: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon

But now, the side-effects are showing.

Facebook is grappling with the proliferation of fake news on its platform, YouTube Kids is struggling to filter violence and lewdness out of videos meant for children, and social media followers are being traded in the Internet’s black market.

Laura Norén, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Data Science at New York University said: “We need to at least teach people that there’s a dark side to the idea that you should move fast and break things.”

“You can patch the software, but you can’t patch a person if you, you know, damage someone’s reputation.”

Ito, who will co-teach the Harvard-MIT ethics course said: “As we start to see things, like autonomous vehicles, that clearly have the ability to save people but also cause harm, I think that people are scrambling to build a system of ethics,” Ito said.

Computer science students aren’t the only ones getting a good dose of morality. Following the sexual harassment and corporate misconduct scandals of companies like Uber and Miramax, business schools are increasingly teaching ethics in a bid to highlight social and corporate responsibility.

In India, business schools will soon source materials from the Mahabharata in a bid to instil “good values” in the country’s future business leaders and to prevent pat financial scandals from repeating.

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