Design decisions often treat people unequally. Take bicycles for example. Bicycles provide a relatively inexpensive, healthy and environmentally friendly form of transportation for billions of people around the world. However, every bike that hits the market automatically excludes those with certain disabilities.
“Even with the most benevolent technology, no matter how morally well-meaning we may be, we are still inevitably discriminated against,” said rising MIT senior Teresa Gao, who also majors in computer science and brain and cognition science.
This concept of discriminatory design was explored by Gao and about 40 other MIT students this summer in 24.133 (Experiential Ethics), which was developed by the MIT Schwarzman School of Computing for Social and Ethical Responsibility Small groups, 10-week courses offered by the Office of Experiential Learning, and the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy.
The course, now in its third year, covers ethical concepts and frameworks – such as the relationship between science, technology and justice, and how to respond responsibly to ethical conflicts – while challenging students to consider these principles in their day-to-day summer internships , work or research experience.
For Gao, who interned at Microsoft this summer, it meant stopping to consider how the products she’s helping design ultimately impact the people who use them, and the wider impact her work and her employers may have on the world.
“It’s really helpful to think about how this internship fits into my career. What factors should I consider from an ethical standpoint when deciding which career path I want to take?” she added.
Ethics postdoctoral scholar Marion Boulicault said the course was designed to give students the opportunity to think about ethics and ethical decision-making through their own experiences, allowing students to explore the connections between ethical theory and practice at the bottom of the Schwarzman School of Computing technology and technology, and experience Founder and Director of the Ethics Program.
While students don’t need to combine courses with jobs, internships or research experiences, doing so can give them a chance to think about their future careers and think about the impact they want to make in the world, says Kate Trimble, senior vice president Dean and Director of the Office of Experiential Learning.
“This model is particularly interesting because during the internship, students often try different professional identities. We want them to be ethical professionals. So, we want them to think about the ethical dimension of this career path and then when they go out into the world , they will carry that view,” she said.
Through virtual meetings, students participate in weekly discussion groups with 5 to 10 peers, each led by a graduate teaching assistant, during which they learn about ethical frameworks and discuss case studies. Weekly topics include: Considering stakeholder decisions (incorporates articles on the ethical implications of navigation applications) and whether technology can be value neutral (reference Langdon Winner’s 1980 research paper titled “Is Artifact Politics?”) .
Based on class discussions, their goals, and summer course experiences, students also completed a final project that they presented to their peers and the wider MIT community at the annual MIT Student Showcase on Ethics and Sustainability.
Through it all, they are encouraged to explore how they will address ethical dilemmas at the summer event and beyond.
“This is both a challenge and an opportunity for an ethics class that focuses on students’ personal experiences. It requires students to feel comfortable sharing and discussing openly their sometimes very personal and difficult topics, such as workplace power dynamics and the role of technology in oppressive systems But if we can create a space where students feel empowered to think about some of these really tough ethical issues, that could be a really good opportunity for them to explore their values and think about them as technology The future of experts,” Boulicault said.
While creating these spaces was no easy task, the team of faculty that facilitated weekly discussions worked hard to engage students. They must take the lofty philosophical framework and bring it down to a level that is grounded and immediate to the student.
Faculty member Javier Agüera, who is completing a master’s degree in engineering and management, has been interested in ethics since starting his first startup as a teenager. Last year, he took the course as a TF, hoping to delve deeper into these tough issues while helping to guide and inspire others. He was impressed by the deep reflections that students put into their personal reflections each week.
“For many of these students, this is the first time they are really reflecting on their own values. Sometimes these topics lead to significant awareness and personal growth, but still in a classroom setting, this can be difficult to balance. You don’t want to put too much pressure on them, but still challenge them in the way they are learning and growing,” Agüera said.
From sublime frameworks to concrete lessons
Maria Carreira learned a lot about the ethics of designing algorithms in the course. As a PhD student in the Department of Biology, she focuses on cryo-electron microscopy and is interested in using machine learning to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the technique. But she didn’t really stop to consider the ethical issues of machine learning, such as data privacy.
Through her final project, where she explored the ethical implications of building models using private patient data using a collaborative machine learning technique called federated learning, she explored the limitations of the technique. Federated learning, for example, requires good will and trust among all participants who collaboratively train a model, she said.
“Now, when I read these scientific papers or think about my own research, I find that I often apply my ethical lens and think about unintended consequences. Machine learning in healthcare is very beneficial, but there are many very valid privacy concerns … This class has really broadened my horizons,” Carrera said.
For Margaret Wang, a sophomore and computer science major, who spent the summer as a software development intern at Amazon, spending time thinking about ethical frameworks helped her feel more confident in her choices.
She chose to research the cookie consent policy for her final project. Cookies are small pieces of data that websites use to store personal information and track user behavior. Companies often design website banners or pop-ups with a specific color scheme or layout, so they encourage users to quickly accept all cookies with a single mouse click, Wang said.
“My biggest takeaway from my project is that it’s so easy for people to give up their personal data without even thinking about it,” she said. “At the end of the day, this course has really taught me to spend more time reflecting on my values when making academic or professional choices in order to better understand what’s important to me.”
This is a life lesson Boulicault and Trimble hope students will learn from experiential ethics. At the same time, they hope to reach more MIT students.
This year, they expanded through a partnership with the 6-A Industrial Program, in which mechanical engineering students do internships with companies during the school year; experiential ethics is now listed as a 6-A requirement. The Office of Experiential Learning, in partnership with the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, also launched a new course last year that uses the same model and focuses on sustainability.
“I hope these courses inspire students to dig deeper and spark their interest and curiosity about ethics and sustainability, because MIT has a lot of great communities working on both topics,” Trimble said. “We want to be graduates who feel a responsibility to make the world a better place, and I hope these courses will help prepare them.”