Ethics in Action | MIT News

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Design decisions often treat people unfairly. For example, consider a bicycle. Bicycles provide a relatively cheap, healthy and environmentally friendly means of transportation for billions of people around the world. However, each bike on the market automatically excludes people with certain disabilities.

“Even with the most benevolent technology, no matter how well-meaning it is ethically, it is still inevitable that it will be discriminatory.

This concept of differential design will be introduced this summer in 24.133 (Experiential Ethics), a 10-week course offered by the Office of Experiential Learning, the Social and Ethical Responsibility Computing Group at the MIT Schwartzman College of Computing. It was explored by one Gao and about 40 MIT students. , and the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy.

Now in its third year, the course covers ethical concepts and frameworks, including the relationship between science, technology, and justice, and how to responsibly overcome ethical conflicts. You will be asked to consider these principles as you work. Internship, work, or research experience.

For Gao, who interned at Microsoft this summer, it’s about how the products she’s helping design will ultimately affect the people who use them, and how her job and her employer It meant pausing to contemplate the broader impact that ‘s work could have on the world.

“It was really helpful to think about how this internship would fit into my career. What factors should I consider from an ethical point of view when deciding which career path I want?” she adds. increase.

Designed to give students the opportunity to think about ethics and ethical decision-making through the lens of their own experience, this course enables students to explore the relationship between ethical theory and practice at the ground level. Marion Briscoe, a postdoctoral scholar in ethics, said: She studied engineering and technology at Schwarzman College of Computing and is the founder and director of the Experiential Ethics course.

Students don’t have to take the course in conjunction with a job, internship, or research experience, but it gives them the opportunity to think about their future careers and reflect on the impact they want to have in the world, says Kate Trimble. says. She is a Senior Associate Dean and Director of the Experiential Learning Room.

“This model is particularly interesting because during internships students are often experimenting with different professional identities, and we want them to be ethical professionals. So we want them to think about the ethical side of this career path, and when they go out into the world, they bring that perspective with them,” she says. .

make ethics personal

Meetings are held virtually and students participate in discussion groups with 5 to 10 peers per week. Each group is led by a graduate teaching fellow to learn about ethical frameworks and discuss case studies. Weekly topics include decision-making with stakeholders in mind (including an article on the ethical implications of navigation apps) and whether technology can be value-neutral (a 1980 research paper, Artifacts Is There Politics?” by Langdon Winner).

Based on class discussions, goals, and summer program experiences, students complete a final project to present to their peers and the wider MIT community at the annual MIT Ethics and Sustainability Student Showcase.

Through it all, they are encouraged to explore how they deal with ethical dilemmas during and after summer activities.

“It is both a challenge and an opportunity for an ethics class that focuses on the personal experiences of students. feel comfortable sharing and discussing their experiences openly, but also creating a space where students feel empowered to think about these very tricky ethical issues. If you can build one, it can be a great opportunity for students to explore their own values ​​and think about their future as engineers,” says Boulicault.

Creating these spaces is no small feat, but the team of teaching fellows who facilitate the weekly discussions work hard to keep students engaged. They must take lofty philosophical frameworks and reduce them to a grounded and direct level for the student.

Fellow professor Javier Aguerra, a master’s degree student in engineering and management, has been interested in ethics since founding his first startup as a teenager. He attended the course last year as a TF, looking to delve deeper into these thorny issues and to mentor and inspire others. He was impressed by how his students pondered their thoughts each week.

“For many of these students, this is the first time they have seriously considered their values. It can be a difficult balance to strike. You don’t want to push them too hard, but challenge them in ways that help them learn and grow,” Agüera says.

From lofty frameworks to concrete precepts

Maria Carreira learned a lot about the ethical aspects of algorithm design in this course. A PhD student in the Department of Biology, she focuses on cryo-electron microscopy and has an interest in using machine learning to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of techniques. But she didn’t take machine learning ethical concerns, such as data privacy, seriously.

Through her last project, which explored the ethical implications of building models using individual patient data using a collaborative machine learning technique known as federated learning, she explored the technology’s limitations. Federated learning, for example, requires goodwill and trust among all participants who are jointly training the model, she says.

“Now, when I read these scientific papers and think about my research, I often find myself applying an ethical lens and thinking about the unintended consequences. There are a lot of privacy concerns that are useful but very valid, and this class really broadened my horizons,” says Carreira.

For Margaret Wang, a sophomore computer science major who spent the summer as a software development intern at Amazon, taking time to think about ethical frameworks gave her confidence in her choices.

She decided to research cookie consent policies 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 and pop-ups in specific color schemes and layouts, prompting users to quickly accept all her cookies with a click of the mouse, she said. .

“The biggest lesson I’ve taken from my project is how easy it is for people to just give their personal data and not even think about it,” she says. “Ultimately, this course really teaches you to spend a lot of time thinking about your values ​​in order to better understand what is important to you when making academic or professional choices. You told me.”

This is one of the life lessons my students hope to learn from empirical ethics. At the same time, they are trying to reach even more MIT students.

This year they expanded through a partnership with the 6-A Industrial Program. In this program, mechanical engineering students pursue an internship at a company during the academic year. Empirical ethics is now included as a 6-A requirement. The Experiential Learning Office, in collaboration with the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, launched a new course last year using the same model focused on sustainability.

“MIT has a great community working on both topics, so I hope these courses will inspire students to delve a little deeper into ethics and sustainability and spark their interest and curiosity. I hope so,” says Trimble. “We want to be graduates who feel a responsibility to make the world a better place, and we hope these classes help prepare them for that.”