Embedded ethics at Harvard: Harvard: bringing ethical reasoning into the computer science curriculum.

Embedded EthiCS @ Harvard: bringing ethical reasoning into the computer science curriculum.

Ethical reasoning is an essential skill for today’s computer scientists. The Embedded EthiCS distributed pedagogy embeds philosophers directly into computer science courses to teach students how to think through the ethical and social implications of their work.

The Embedded EthiCS Mission

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Novel computing technologies often improve our lives, but they can also affect them in ways that are harmful or unjust. Facial recognition programs may speed up security lines, but also discriminate against certain populations. Autonomous vehicles may free us from human driver error, but also pose novel risks to human drivers and pedestrians. Today’s computer scientists must learn to design systems that are morally and socially responsible. Embedded EthiCS, a collaborative undertaking of the computer science and philosophy faculties at Harvard, teaches students of computer science how to think through the ethical and social implications of their work.

The Embedded EthiCS Strategy

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Embedded EthiCS meets the challenge of making ethical reasoning integral to computer science education with a distributed pedagogy that introduces ethics directly into standard computer science courses across the curriculum. It works by embedding philosophers into courses to teach a module for the course that explores an ethical issue that the course material raises. In a data systems class, the philosopher might explore issues of privacy in large, distributed systems. In a programming languages course, she might ask students to consider ethical specifications as well as functional ones. In a human-computer interaction course, she might explore whether software engineers should design systems that are accessible to visually impaired users. In a machine learning class, she might explore how solving problems using machine learning can lead to inadvertent discrimination. In a networks class, she might explore the issue of censorship on social media platforms.

Explore our open access modules here

The Embedded EthiCS Skill Set

The goal of Embedded EthiCS is to teach students to consider not merely what technologies they could create, but what technologies they should create. How do you design computing technologies that are both beneficial and socially responsible? There is no simple recipe for resolving ethical problems in computer science. It’s not just a matter of applying ethical principles to computer science scenarios. Instead Embedded EthiCS teaches students to:
  1. Identify and anticipate ethical and social issues in their work.
  2. Think clearly about those issues, both alone and collaboratively.
  3. Communicate their understanding of those issues effectively.
  4. Design systems that take into account ethical and social concerns.

The Embedded EthiCS Advantage

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The Advantage of the Embedded EthiCS distributed pedagogy over stand-alone courses is:
  1. It shows students the extent to which ethical and social issues permeate virtually all areas of computer science.
  2. It familiarizes students with the wide range of ethical and social issues arising across the field.
  3. It provides students with repeated practice reasoning through those issues, communicating their positions, and designing systems that take into account what they've learned.