Stanford students, professors emphasize ethics and social responsibility in tech

Oct. 4, 2021, 11:39 p.m.

Some students and professors are pushing their peers to be leaders in the conversation around ethics and social responsibility in tech given Stanford’s unique role as an institution at the heart of Silicon Valley,

“Stanford is the premier educator of the visionary founders and hardware and software engineers who populate Silicon Valley,” political science professor Rob Reich M.A. ’98 Ph.D. ’98, who teaches a course on ethics in technology and computer science, wrote in a statement to The Daily. “Stanford should not merely produce technological innovation; it should study and teach about its ethical and social ramifications.”

In recent years, the University has made strides toward this goal, including implementing new academic initiatives that focus on the intersection of ethics and technology. To educate students and communities beyond Stanford about ethics in tech, the University’s computer science (CS) department has implemented courses into its curriculum bridging the humanities, social sciences and CS, thereby exemplifying an interdisciplinary approach to tech, Reich wrote.

One course that Reich teaches, CS 182: “Ethics, Public Policy and Technological Change,” has even been offered to the broader Silicon Valley community through Stanford’s Continuing Studies program, while another version of the class was offered to tech professionals in San Francisco. The CS department has also started an Embedded Ethics initiative, inserting ethics modules into courses in the undergraduate CS curriculum.

“Stanford bears more responsibility than any other university for inventing the digital technologies that have upended industries and profoundly affected the lives of people and societies across the globe,” Reich wrote. 

This shift toward a focus on ethics in the technology industry’s priorities is epitomized by the stories of two Stanford founders, according to a FastCompany article written by Reich, political science professor Jeremey Weinstein and computer science professor Mehran Sahami Ph.D. ’99.

In the article, the professors compare the lives of Joshua Browder ’18 — the founder of DoNotPay, and who they wrote represents the quick rise of Silicon Valley tech leaders — and Aaron Swartz, a tech entrepreneur who played a key role in the foundational stages of Reddit and whose work focused more on accessibility and accountability in tech.

The professors invoke the two Stanford alumni, writing that the “rise of the Joshua Browders and the decline of the Aaron Swartzes encapsulate the challenge the world confronts with Silicon Valley.”

By grounding students in personal, professional, social and political ethics, Reich wrote that he hopes Stanford can challenge students to “think about their role as enablers and shapers of technological change in society” and “internalize a commitment to their responsibilities as innovators, designers, coders, engineers, policymakers, citizens and consumers.”

Computer science students Devin Green ’24 and Afnaan Hashmi ’24 have also noticed the shift in campus and Silicon Valley culture surrounding technological innovation and its ethical implications. 

Green said that those who code for the sake of advocacy and inclusive innovation are often left behind because “technology and programming, in the big-tech world especially, is more about making something cool that also makes money.” He referenced Timnit Gebru, who was fired from Google after advocating for less bias within Google’s artificial intelligence algorithms.

Green said that amid the rise of the next generation of coders and innovators, he hopes that the technology industry can focus on coding for good instead of for wealth. 

Students at Stanford want to help lead the new wave in ethical tech. “Innovation needs to exist in tandem with ethics and discussions surrounding the ethical implications of a given piece of technology,” Hashmi said. He said that Stanford’s ethics in CS and technology class is a step in the right direction and that he hopes to see this effort expanded to K-12 curricula.

Reich hopes that Stanford will lead the transition to a more ethical tech industry. 

“With every new innovation, we want students to ask, What am I enabling others to do? What responsibilities does this imply for me as an innovator, a citizen, and a human being?” Reich wrote.

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