Can universities help tech industry rethink morals?

In the wake of several high-profile ethical failures – Uber’s self-driving scandals, Facebook’s privacy violations, Google’s growing monopoly and Elizabeth Holmes’s big letdown – Silicon Valley’s moral backbone, or lack thereof, is more apparent now than ever. According to a New York Times article, the tech industry needs new words to live by: perhaps “first, do no harm” should replace the tech industry’s standard “build it first, ask questions later” ethos.

One might argue that this no-holds barred developmental cycle is what leads to rapid innovation, but innovation is no excuse for disregarding the lives of people affected by these companies’ ethical mistakes. With the immense amount of power these companies hold, turning a blind eye to what their products or services are being used for is complicity in the face of cruelty. Ignorance is not an excuse that can be used to justify privilege.

Cognizant of the industry’s lack of ethical standards, many schools are incorporating ethics and morality into the curriculum for their technology-based majors. Stanford is currently developing a course to focus on “ethics, society and technology”; University of Texas at Austin offers “Ethical Foundations of Computer Science”; Harvard and MIT have a new course in the same field. Carnegie Mellon currently offers several classes in this field, such as Computation Ethics for NLP, Ethics and Policy Issues in Computing, Green Computing and Policy, Technology and Law.

In 2016, Carnegie Mellon received a $10 million grant from law firm K&L Gates LLC to help “ensure CMU’s leadership in the emerging field of ethical and policy issues surrounding artificial intelligence and other computing technologies.” The fund was intended to support students and faculty members doing research in that field, which puts the school in a very good position. As a university, Carnegie Mellon is doing comparatively well in terms of considering the repercussions of the cutting edge technology that it produces.

As a community, however, it still has a long way to go. The way we treat each other in STEM environments can’t be different from the way we would like to treat the world. Recently, two distinguished professors resigned from CMU citing claims of “professional harassment.” While this may seem unrelated to the grand scale of ethics and the culture of innovation in the tech industry, it is an important example of the culture within the industry.

These problems are not separate. The solution to improving the culture of the tech community is not to simply introduce courses in the hopes that students will just “be better”, but to actively work to make things better, and repair the existing chinks in our armour.