A few U.S. universities are introducing new courses that will explore the ethical ramifications of technology. The goal is to bring “a more medicine-like morality to computer science,” according to The New York Times.
Schools spinning up the coursework include MIT, Harvard and Stanford. One course offered jointly by MIT and Harvard, “The Ethics and Governance of Artificial Intelligence,” will focus on the potential ramifications of artificial intelligence (A.I.) and machine learning. While autonomous platforms such as self-driving cars offer a lot of potential benefit to the world, there’s also the possibility that such technology will bring unintended death and destruction. This isn’t, say, ethics in games journalism; there are real-world consequences that budding technologists need to understand.
The courses come at a particularly auspicious time for the technology industry. For example, Wired just published a massive cover story that details how Facebook ended up in an ethical and political morass. The social network’s longtime ethos—“Move fast and break things”—stopped serving it very well when foreign entities began exploiting its tools as part of international disinformation campaigns; various tech luminaries blaming Facebook for tearing at the social fabric hasn’t helped, either.
Nor is Facebook the only company facing ethical challenges. Uber, another tech firm formerly dedicated to growth at all costs, is still attempting to distance itself from a year of executive firings, sexual-harassment allegations, and reports of generally bad behavior.
In the wake of all these lawsuits, allegations, and bad press, it’s become increasingly clear that bad (or no) ethics can hit a tech firm right in the bank account. In that context, offering classes in ethics to young tech pros might prove a very good thing in the long term. At the very least, it may ensure that the next crop of big tech companies grows in a reasonable way, with a positive internal culture; and when it comes to artificial intelligence and other cutting-edge technologies, a little understanding of ethics and consequences could mean that something we barely understand doesn’t slip completely out of our control.