Design decisions often treat people unequally. Take a bicycle, for instance. Bicycles offer a relatively inexpensive, healthy, and environmentally friendly mode of transportation for billions of people around the world. Yet each bicycle that hits the market automatically excludes those living with certain disabilities.
“Even with the most benevolent technology, no matter how well-intentioned we are ethically, we are still inevitably being discriminatory,” says rising MIT senior Teresa Gao, who is double-majoring in computer science and brain and cognitive sciences.
This concept of discriminatory design was one Gao and about 40 other MIT students explored this summer in 24.133 (Experiential Ethics), a 10-week course offered by the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing’s Social and Ethical Responsibilities of Computing group, the Office of Experiential Learning, and the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy.
Now in its third year, the course covers ethical concepts and frameworks — such as the relationship between science, technology, and justice and how to navigate ethical conflicts responsibly — while challenging students to consider those principles during their day-to-day work at summer internships, jobs, or research experiences.
For Gao, who interned at Microsoft this summer, that meant pausing to consider how the products she is helping design could ultimately affect those who use them, and the broader impact her work, and that of her employer, could have on the world.
“It has been really beneficial to think about how this internship fits into my career. What are the factors I should be considering from an ethics point of view as I’m deciding the career path I want to follow?” she adds.
The course was designed to give students an opportunity to think about ethics and ethical decision-making through the lens of their own experiences, allowing students to explore connections between ethical theory and practice at the ground level, says Marion Boulicault, a postdoctoral scholar in ethics and technology at the Schwarzman College of Computing and a founder and director of the Experiential Ethics course.
While students aren’t required to take the course in conjunction with a job, internship, or research experience, doing so gives them an opportunity to think about their future careers and ponder the impact they want to make on the world, says Kate Trimble, senior associate dean and director of the Office of Experiential Learning.
“During the summer, students are often trying on future professional identities. While they’re testing-driving these options, we want them to be thinking about the ethical dimensions of the different career pathways, so that when they graduate and launch out into the world, they are bringing that knowledge and perspective with them,” she says.
Making ethics personal
Meeting virtually, the students participate in weekly discussion groups with five to 10 peers, each led by a graduate teaching fellow, during which they learn about ethical frameworks and discuss case studies. Weekly topics include: decision-making with stakeholders in mind (incorporating articles on the ethical implications of navigation apps) and whether technology can be value-neutral (drawing on a 1980 research paper titled “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” by Langdon Winner).
Based on class discussions, their goals, and experiences in summer programs, the students also complete a final project that they present to their peers and the broader MIT community at the annual MIT Ethics and Sustainability Student Showcase.
Through it all, they are encouraged to explore how they would address ethical dilemmas during their summer activities and beyond.
“For an ethics class where the focus is on the students’ personal experiences, that presents a challenge and an opportunity. It requires that students feel comfortable openly sharing and discussing their experiences about sometimes quite personal and difficult topics, such as workplace power dynamics and the role of technology in systems of oppression. But if we can create a space where students feel empowered to think about some of these really tricky ethical questions, it can be a really amazing opportunity for them to explore their values and think about their futures as technologists,” Boulicault says.
While creating those spaces is no easy task, the team of teaching fellow who facilitate weekly discussions work hard to engage students. They must take lofty philosophical frameworks and bring them down to a level that is grounded and immediate for the students.
Teaching fellow Javier Agüera, who is completing a master’s degree in engineering and management, had been interested in ethics since he founded his first startup as a teenager. He joined the course as a TF last year, looking to delve deeper into these thorny issues while helping mentor and inspire others. He’s been impressed by how much deep thought the students put into their personal reflections each week.
“For a lot of these students, this is the first time they are really reflecting on their values. Sometimes these topics bring about big realizations and personal growth, but still within a classroom setting, which can be tough to balance. You don’t want to push them too much, but still challenge them in a way that they are learning and growing,” says Agüera.
From lofty frameworks to concrete lessons
Maria Carreira learned a great deal about the ethical dimensions of designing algorithms during the course. A PhD student in the Department of Biology, she is focusing on cryo-electron microscopy and is interested in using machine learning to enhance the technique’s efficiency and effectiveness. But she hadn’t really paused to consider ethical concerns of machine learning, such as data privacy.
Through her final project, she explored the limitations and ethical implications of using a collaborative machine-learning technique known as federated learning to build models using private patient data. For instance, federated learning requires good intentions and trust among all participants who are collaboratively training the model, she says.
“Now when I am reading these scientific papers or thinking about my own research, I find that I’m often applying my ethical lenses and thinking about unintended consequences. Machine learning in health care has been very beneficial, but there are a lot of very valid privacy concerns. This class really broadened my horizons,” says Carreira.
For Margaret Wang, a sophomore and computer science major who spent the summer as a software development intern at Amazon, taking time to think through ethical frameworks helped her be more confident in her choices.
She chose to study 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 or pop-ups with specific color schemes or layouts so they encourage users to quickly accept all cookies with just a click of the mouse, Wang says.
“My biggest takeaway from my project is how easy it is for people to just give away their personal data and not even think about it,” she says. “Ultimately, this course really taught me to spend more time reflecting on my values to get a better sense of the things that are important to me when I’m making academic or professional choices.”
That’s one life lesson Boulicault and Trimble hope students take from Experiential Ethics. At the same time, they are looking to reach even more MIT students.
This year, they expanded through a partnership with the 6-A Industrial Program, in which mechanical engineering students pursue internships at companies during the academic year; Experiential Ethics is now included as a 6-A requirement. The Office of Experiential Learning, in collaboration with the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, also launched a new course last year using the same model that focuses on sustainability.
“I hope these courses spark students’ curiosity about ethics and sustainability and inspire them to reflect more on their own values and goals. There are lots of options at MIT for them to dig a little deeper—expert faculty members, fascinating courses, hands-on experiential opportunities. We want to be graduating students who feel a responsibility to make the world a better place, and I hope these classes help prepare them to do that,” Trimble says.