AUSTIN (KXAN) — At the University of Texas at Austin, computer science students are being asked to go beyond coding and engineering. Their department wants them to graduate with an understanding of ethics as well.
This semester at UT there’s a new computer science course called “Ethical Foundations of Computer Science” which introduces first-year students to ethical dilemmas they may be familiar with (cheating, sexual harassment) and over time helps them to draw parallels to problems they may encounter working in technology.
Sarah Abraham and Alison Norman, the two lecturers teaching this course, say there are around 60 students enrolled currently. They hope to eventually make the course a requirement for the more than 400 students who enter their department each year.
Abraham teaches another ethics course for upperclassmen which has been around a while longer, but that class was more popular than the department had room for.
“As we look at technology and it becomes pervasive in our lives, we have to understand the effects of the technology we have and to think critically about what we’re doing so we can do it properly,” said Norman.
She knows her students will go on to work with technology that will impact things like medical devices, phones, maybe even driverless cars. “Without this sort of training, our students are less likely to realize the impacts of their software,” she said.
Her department is often ranked as one of the top in the country. UT specifies that it’s the largest computer science department by enrollment among the top 10 ranked in US News.
UT Austin is one of several highly-ranked departments to turn their focus towards teaching ethics. According to a New York Times report, this semester Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are offering a joint course on artificial intelligence ethics, last fall Cornell University introduced a data science course where students learned about ethical challenges, New York University has a new data science ethics course, and Stanford professors are developing a computer science ethics course which students can enroll in next year.
“I think it’s been one of the most important classes I’ve taken,” said UT Computer Science vajor Mridhul Maddela, who is taking the upperclassmen ethics course. “We’re learning how to use this software, and [they’re] teaching something that everybody should know in terms of how to combat security threats or security issues and what coding will make the best sense from an ethical perspective.”
After he graduates, Maddela already has a job lined up with Exxon Mobil working with their business intelligence platform. He plans to bring the ideas he learned about in computer science ethics courses to his new job.
“I think a lot of the ethical issues that we see are people acting inappropriately, towards all this data, whether they’re stealing identities or misusing information and spinning it in a wrong way,” Maddela said. “I think it’s really important to have classes like these and to learn about, you know, in the age of information, what are the right things to do?”
Students like Maddela are learning about everything from propaganda to whistle-blowers, to worms, to cyber warfare.
“If I have soldiers holding a gun to your head, that’s a threat right? What if I put a virus on your system? Is that a threat? Have I invaded your country?” Abraham asked her students Monday. (The answer, she says, is yes.)
She hopes her students in this hyper-technical field don’t forget about the importance of soft skills that will help them assess right from wrong.
“The medical industry has a lot of ethics, legal and business–these are all industries that [focus on] it,” Abraham said. “It’s not like ethics came out of nowhere, I think computer science, maybe as a field that’s fairly new in some ways, is just realizing the importance of that.”
This program will likely have implications for the future at UT’s growing Computer Science department. As of early 2018, the department had 1,750 undergraduate students and 250 graduate students, with eyes set on boosting enrollment to 1,900 undergraduate students. In recent years, the department reached capacity and has had to control enrollment. Computer science is now one of the largest majors at UT.
Graduates in computer science at UT are often recruited to big-name companies. The top ten companies which hire UT CS graduates include Faceboook, Google, Microsoft, IBM, and Amazon.
Barbary Brunner, CEO of the Austin Technology Council, believes that what these ethics courses at UT are “a really valuable thing.” She explained that as companies in the tech world search for new ways to disrupt old ideas, it’s important to look at the human implications of what they’re setting out to do.
“This may be where the university leads the industry and the industry wakes up and says, ‘Wow that’s really smart,'” Brunner said. “For Texas to become a real tech powerhouse– which I think it can become — it needs to engage in the same sort of collaboration between higher education and the technology community that you see in California, that you see in the Seattle area.”
Brunner hasn’t heard many overarching discussions of ethics within the Austin tech world, but knows that individual discussions about ethics are going on at many companies, especially those related to security and artificial intelligence.
In the long run she thinks that ethics training may become one of many qualities tech companies look for in the recent graduates they hire.