Course: CS 152: Programming Languages
Course Level: Upper-level undergraduate
Course Description: "This course is an introduction to the theory, design, and implementation of programming languages. Topics covered in this course include: formal semantics of programming languages (operational, axiomatic, denotational, and translational), type systems, higher-order functions and lambda calculus, laziness, continuations, dynamic types, monads, objects, modules, concurrency, and communication." (Course description )
Module Topic: Ethics in Software Verification and Validation
Module Author: David Gray Grant
Semesters Taught: Spring 2018
Module Overview: Software systems based on artificial intelligence often exhibit surprising emergent behavior that can have ethically problematic effects on the lives and interests of human beings. Machine ethics is a nascent interdisciplinary field devoted to ensuring that AI-based systems behave in ethically acceptable ways by modifying the way they make decisions to take ethical considerations explicitly into account.
In this module, we discuss two emerging strategies in machine ethics. The first makes use of ethical design specifications. Design specifications are concrete, formally verifiable desiderata that a software system is designed to satisfy. Design specifications are ordinarily technical or legal, but they can also be ethical. Ethical design specifications are intended to ensure that a system does not behave in specific ethically unacceptable ways in (relatively) specific contexts. The second makes use of machine moral reasoning. Machine moral reasoning uses advanced artificial intelligence techniques to simulate the ethical reasoning capacities of human agents, in an effort to prevent ethically unacceptable system behavior in situations that are not specifically foreseen. We consider a series of case studies in machine ethics in order to evaluate the promise and limitations of these two strategies for ensuring ethically acceptable system behavior.
As we mention in “Lessons Learned” below, the focus on AI-based systems in this module is optional. In particular, the first strategy described here (using ethical design specifications) can be applied just as easily to systems that are not AI-based. When we teach this module again in the spring of 2019, we plan on developing a separate version of the module focusing on software systems that are not AI-based.
Connection to Course Technical Material: In the lead-up to the module, the course covers automated techniques that can be used to verify that a software system will behave in accordance with its design specifications. In this module, we introduce the idea of ethical design specifications, and consider how these might be verified (either using techniques covered in the course, or other methods).
© 2018 by David Gray Grant, "Ethics in Software Verification and Validation" is made available under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license (CC BY 4.0).
Key Philosophical Questions:
Key Philosophical Concepts:
This short piece from Nature provides an overview of contemporary research in machine ethics, familiarizing students with various approaches to designing AI-based systems to respond appropriately to ethical considerations.
This article, written by a team of computer and information scientists, considers how cutting-edge technologies from the field of artificial intelligence might be used to augment autonomous software systems with the capacity to apply general ethical principles to novel situations. In the last part of the module, we consider the potential advantages and disadvantages of this approach (compared to technically simpler approaches). The article also considers how formal verification techniques might be used to provide additional assurances that a system will respect ethical principles, and so connects directly with technical material covered in the course.
Sample Class Activity: The first half of the class session focuses on a series of short case studies in which an AI-based software system behaved in unexpected and ethically problematic ways following launch. These case studies include Microsoft’s Tay Twitterbot (which was manipulated by Twitter users into posting discriminatory messages), Knightscope’s K-9 security robot (which disrupted the lives of residents of a camp of homeless individuals in San Francisco), and Google’s targeted advertising tools (which some companies have used in ways that arguably constitute illegal discrimination).
After briefly discussing the case studies, we introduce a simple framework for anticipating potential ethical issues with a software system: first, identify as many groups of stakeholders that might be affected as possible; second, consider how the behavior of the system might affect the rights and interests of the individuals in those stakeholder groups. (Here the Embedded EthiCS TA gives examples of putative rights, such as the right to privacy or the right not to be discriminated against.) Students then apply this framework to the case studies considered in the module in small groups of 5-6 students. Later in the class session, students consider how the potential problems they identify might be addressed at different phases of the software engineering process, including software verification and validation.
The simple framework described here is adapted from Will Kymlicka’s excellent 1993 article “Moral Philosophy and Public Policy: the Case of NRTs.” According to Kymlicka, non-experts are liable to make significant mistakes – and overlook important considerations – when they attempt to evaluate technologies using complex tools from moral theory. By contrast, he argues, non-experts tend to be more successful when they focus on anticipating concrete, obviously important ways in which a technology might affect the lives of particular groups of people. Whether or not Kymlicka is right about this, it seems clear that the ability to anticipate how the behavior of a software system might affect our rights and interests is an important skill for computer scientists to have. Activities like this one provide students with an opportunity to practice this essential skill.
Module Assignment: In the follow-up assignment, students collaboratively analyze a more detailed case study. The case study features an AI-based software agent being developed at the Center for Artificial Intelligence in Society at USC to assist with the planning of a public health social work intervention targeting homeless youth in Los Angeles. Students review the case study independently and make two posts to a graded discussion forum. In the first, they identify a group of stakeholders in the case study, and give an example of how a right or interest of that stakeholder might be affected by the behavior of the agent. In the second, they suggest a possible strategy for addressing a potential ethical problem identified by another student, or comment on another student’s proposed strategy.
Lessons Learned: Student response to the module was positive when it was taught in the spring of 2018. In follow-up surveys, 86% of students reported that they found the module interesting, and 78% said that participating helped them think more clearly about the ethical issues we discussed. A few things we learned from the experience: