Computer Science Ethics: A Growth Area for Philosophy?


An increasing number of universities across the country are beginning to offer courses in “computer science ethics,” The New York Times reports.

This semester, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are jointly offering a new course on the ethics and regulation of artificial intelligence. The University of Texas at Austin just introduced a course titled “Ethical Foundations of Computer Science”—with the idea of eventually requiring it for all computer science majors.

And at Stanford University, the academic heart of the industry, three professors and a research fellow are developing a computer science ethics course for next year. They hope several hundred students will enroll.

The idea is to train the next generation of technologists and policymakers to consider the ramifications of innovations—like autonomous weapons or self-driving cars—before those products go on sale.

While the article says that some of these courses are being offered through philosophy departments, none of the specific courses mentioned in the article were philosophy courses. If you or your department offer such a course, feel free to share a description of it in the comments.

Philosophy departments often partner up with other units on campus to meet curricular needs, for various reasons. Perhaps after biomedical ethics, business ethics, and engineering ethics, perhaps the next growth area is computer science ethics.

Oh, and if you haven’t yet seen this:

guest
12 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Mark Alfano
3 years ago

I teach this course: https://www.dropbox.com/s/dnpjml5irk8kd3q/Alfano.IT%20%26%20Values.Syllabus.docx?dl=0

Next year will add a unit on blockchain.Report

D.E. Wittkower
3 years ago

I’ve taught Computer Ethics at Vanderbilt University (as a grad student, 2001–2003), at UMSL and U Maine—Orono (in temporary appointments, 2004–2005), and in my current position at Old Dominion University. At Vanderbilt it was in the CS department, at the rest in PHIL. I’m currently revising the course to re-launch as “Cybersecurity Ethics,” along with a colleague (also in PHIL) who’ll also teach it. I also teach a course called “Philosophy of Digital Culture.”

This year is the third consecutive year that Old Dominion University has conducted cluster hires in cybersecurity that have been open to applicants with Ph.Ds in philosophy, but we have received very few applications from philosophers. These courses aren’t new, but philosophy is failing to staff them, and failing to train students in this areas. A significant problem is the lack of philosophers of technology and information ethicists in Ph.D-granting institutions.Report

Alan White
Alan White
Reply to  D.E. Wittkower
3 years ago

You already have considerable wealth of experience! May I ask: what are your enrollments and what sort of students enroll?Report

D.E. Wittkower
Reply to  Alan White
3 years ago

At Vanderbilt, I think it was mostly CS majors, and I think I ran one 30-student section per semester, which filled. That was a long time ago, though! Students at UMSL and U Maine were varied—not just CS or IT, and I had a couple philosophy MA students in my classes at UMSL. 30-35 student sections, one or two per semester. Classes filled.

Here at ODU, we’re at a transitional moment. Next year, we’ll be offering Cybersecurity Ethics for the first time, with one 35-student section, which we expect to fill. We expect demand from Cybersecurity majors next year to be 40–50 students, moving up to 70 and higher in years thereafter, as our new interdisciplinary Cybersecurity major and minor continue to grow enrollments. I also expect CS, IT, and PHIL majors in there, but it’s written into the curriculum for our Cybersecurity major (as one of three options on cyber ethics/law/criminology), so that’s where most of the demand is likely to be. Demand for more sections of this course will continue to grow, but our ability to offer sections is likely to top out at two sections a year—I really hope we can hire a philosopher doing cybersecurity ethics or information ethics soon. Until then, we’ll just offer as many sections as we can staff, and I expect they’ll all fill.

Also, I should have mentioned, I’m developing a 2-week unit on philosophy of cybersecurity which will be part of an interdisciplinary Introduction to Cybersecurity course. We’ve got a big NSF grant for that.Report

Gordon
Gordon
Reply to  D.E. Wittkower
3 years ago

I also taught the computer ethics course at Vanderbilt, a couple of years before Dylan. I did it full time – 3 courses a semester, about 30 students each – for a year. As I remember, it was associated with an ABET (the engineering accreditation agency) requiring ethics coursework, which they did starting in 2000 (I also think this course pre-dated 2000, so I’m really not sure of the interactions here). So it was a successful course, though I believe it was required. As Dylan says, it was a long time ago!

We (UNC Charlotte) currently have a gen-ed course on “Ethical Issues in Technology.” That’s required for CS majors, but for bureaucratic reasons it cannot be designed exclusively for CS majors (because it’s a gen-ed class). So it covers a grab-bag of issues in ethics and technology, and the enrollment splits between CS and other students.

I want to add my agreement to the second point – there’s nowhere near enough people in philosophy (or getting trained in philosophy) who work on these issues.Report

Chris Stephens
Chris Stephens
Reply to  D.E. Wittkower
3 years ago

Did you advertise on Phil Jobs? And if not, why not?Report

D.E. Wittkower
Reply to  Chris Stephens
3 years ago

We haven’t put these cluster hires on Phil Jobs. They’ve been multiple positions, open to anyone with terminal degrees represented in our interdisciplinary cybersecurity program, including CS, IT, ECE, Modeling and Simulation, sociology/criminology, and philosophy, so we’ve advertised in more general venues such as HigherEdJobs—but philosophy has been specifically mentioned in the ad, so it should come up in searches. I’m pushing to get a line designated for a philosopher, in which case we would advertise in philosophy-specific sites, of course.Report

David Levy
David Levy
3 years ago

My colleague, Stacey Edgar, developed an intermediate-level undergraduate course in Computer Ethics back in the mid-late 1990s. Here’s her course description:

Computers have done more to change the world we live in than any other single development in recent times. These changes have created new moral issues which we must face. By looking both at considered ethical foundations of the past and the new challenges of the present and the future, this course attempts to provide a critical basis for meeting these new issues, which include invasion of privacy, computer crime, professional ethics and responsibility, ownership and stealing of computer technology, the political implications of computer power, and the impact of the use and misuse of computer technology.

We no longer offer the course regularly–too many other demands, and the institution “retrenched” the Computer Science program several years ago. When we offered it regularly, enrollments were in the 35-40 range, with students coming from a wide variety of disciplines.

Stacey also wrote a computer ethics textbook: Morality & Machines: Perspectives on Computer Ethics. It was published by Jones & Bartlett, went to a second edition in 2002. It’s now out of print.Report

Matt
3 years ago

It’s a welcome development. It’s one more reason why I’m sad and annoyed that the APA has decided to eliminate the Committee on Philosophy and Computers (along with the committees on philosophy and medicine and philosophy and law, which I am currently the chair of.) Such committees do important work on developing areas like this, but were seen as not important enough by the current board of directors. A very short-sighted and narrow view, I think.Report

Fritz J. McDonald
Reply to  Matt
3 years ago

Really? I’m on the Committee on Philosophy and Computers and I haven’t heard about the Committee being eliminated.Report

Matt
Reply to  Fritz J. McDonald
3 years ago

Yes, unfortunately. A completely autocratic top-down decision made by the Board without any input from the relevant committees, and so without insight as to why it might be a bad decision.Report

Peter Amato
3 years ago

At Drexel University in Philadelphia PA USA we have had a “Computer Ethics” course for decades, and recently renamed it “Ethics & Information Technology” to make it a little clearer what the subject matter is (since computers are now so ubiquitous (they weren’t when the course was created) that it’s not clear what the word “computer” refers to. We run about eight sections of this class every year. Drexel also has researchers developing unique approaches to studying these kinds of issues: http://exelmagazine.org/article/ethics-of-algorithms/Report