Summer 2018 Course Descriptions

COMP 150-BB Exploration of Computer Science Ethics

S. Shapiro

In 1976, MIT computer science professor Joseph Weizenbaum published Computer Power and Human Reason, in which he raised a fundamental and practical philosophical question for computer scientists: How to distinguish between what we could do and what we should do? Even then, the growing power and impact of computing was making this an increasingly relevant question for computing professionals. Today, that power and that impact is of a degree and kind that was almost unimaginable 42 years ago and, as a result, the question is even more profound now than it was then.

Computing is now far more pervasive and embedded than when Weizenbaum wrote. It permeates our lives and environment. Cars are now computing platforms on wheels, with all the safety, security, and privacy issues that fact brings with it. Inscrutable algorithms make crucial decisions about people with and without human participation, generating concerns about transparency and fairness. Pocket computers (aka smartphones), particularly in combination with social media, are being viewed as potential threats to mental health. Machine learning and other advances threaten to automate away many jobs. And on it goes.

These kinds of issues do not lend themselves to easy answers. This course will not, nor does it aim to, provide students with The Answer to any of them. Rather, it aims to equip practitioners with contextual knowledge (including some relevant history) and conceptual tools (including ethical frameworks) for thinking constructively—both as computing professionals and as members of society—about challenging ethical and policy issues in which information technology plays a key role. As part of this process, we will apply this thinking to a number of relevant historical and contemporary case studies. Upon completing this course, students will be in an improved position to consider and act upon the difference between could and should in this time of extraordinary technological change.

Prerequisite: This course assumes a basic knowledge of computer science, software engineering, and/or information systems, such as one might obtain from an introductory or survey course or from practical experience.

Back to Main Courses Page