Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Course on Ethics and Accountability in Computer Science

About one year ago, I became aware of the course "Ethics and Accountability in Computer Science" designed and taught by Rodrigo Ferreira and Moshe Y. Vardi at Rice University. The goals and high-level structure of the course, as well as its context, are described in an informative and thoughtful paper by Moshe and Rodrigo that appears in the Proceedings of the 52nd ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education (SIGCSE ’21), which I strongly recommend. You can also read a journal paper reporting on one of their course assignments, which was designed to make students focus on practising "deep attention" in the sense of artist and academic Jenny Odell.

I was smitten by the underlying tenet for their course, namely that "social justice is the single most important issue confronting computer science students today." That tenet is also very much in line with a reflection on the impact that digital technology has on social justice that the Scientific Advisory Board of the Gran Sasso Science Institute asked the Computer Science group at that institute to undertake. Therefore, after having invited Rodrigo to deliver a webinar on the course at the ICE-TCS+GSSI webinar series, I decided that, as an experiment, I would offer a version of the Rice University course to master students in computer science, language technology and software engineering at Reykjavik University during our spring semester 2021. 

Mine was a foolhardy decision for a variety of reasons. However, I have always believed that computer scientists should strive to be the 21st century Renaissance men and women, and bridge the gap between C. P. Snow's "two cultures". Indeed, to quote Edward A. Lee freely, to my mind technologists ought to be amongst the greatest humanists of our age. Despite my other commitments, offering a version of the Ferreira-Vardi course at Reykjavik University felt like the right thing to do at this time. 

I taught the course over twelve weeks to a varied group of eight students, in cooperation with Claudio Pedica. Thanks to the constant support I received from Rodrigo Ferreira, I lived to tell the tale and I hope that I managed to do some justice to the truly excellent course that Moshe and Rodrigo put together. Having a dream team of students with a variety of cultural backgrounds made the course extremely interesting and a learning experience for me. I had to refresh my memory of the philosophy I studied at high school in Italy in a previous life, learn some modern moral philosophy I had not met at school (such as the work by Elisabeth Anscombe and Philippa Foot, amongst others), read a substantial amount of new material (some of it fresh off the press as the course was unfolding) and broaden my horizons. I could not have asked for a better intellectual experience and the students in the course, from Denmark, France, Germany, Iceland and the Netherlands taught me well, kept me on my toes and stimulated me to keep reading material related to ethics even now that the course is over.

Teaching the course reinforced my belief that a course on ethics and on the impact that our field has on social justice should be required for all students in computer science. If you plan to run such a course, I strongly recommend that you consider the Ferreira-Vardi course as a blueprint.