//What Sci-Fi Can Teach Computer Science About Ethics

What Sci-Fi Can Teach Computer Science About Ethics

This story is part of a series on how we learn—from augmented reality to music-training devices.

The protagonist of Rebecca Roanhorse’s short story “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian ExperienceTM” is a bit of a sad sack. A guide for a VR tourism company in Sedona, Arizona, he leads “vision quests” in a digital guise taken straight from Little Big Man. He’s Native American in our corporal realm as well, just not the sort tourists wish to commune with, he argues—until one does, stealing his job and his life story. Heartbreaking yet ambiguous, the story won a bunch of top sci-fi honors, including a Nebula and a Hugo.

For the students in Emanuelle Burton’s ethics class, the story is tricky to grok. “They’re like, you gotta grow a spine, man!” Burton says. Then, maybe, the conversation turns to Instagram. They talk about the fraught relationship between influencers and authenticity. They wander further afield, into the design choices people make when they build cyber worlds and how those worlds affect the bodies who labor within them. By the time class is up, Burton, a scholar of religion by training, hopes to have made progress toward something intangible: defining the emotional stakes of technology.

That’s crucial, Burton says, because most of her students are programmers. At the University of Illinois-Chicago, where Burton teaches, every student in the computer science major is required to take her course, whose syllabus is packed with science fiction. The idea is to let students take a step back from their 24-hour hackathons and start to think, through narrative and character, about the products they’ll someday build and sell. “Stories are a good way to slow people down,” Burton says. Perhaps they can even help produce a more ethical engineer.

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There’s a long, tangled debate over how to teach engineers ethics—and whether it’s even worth doing. In 1996, a group of researchers wrote a call in the prominent journal Communications of the ACM for ethics in comp-sci courses. In the next issue, a letter to the editor appeared from a pair of computer scientists arguing the opposite. “Ethical and social concerns may be important, but as debating the morality of nuclear weapons is not doing physics, discussing the social and ethical impact of computing is not doing computer science,” they wrote. This was the position that, in the main, took hold.

But Team Ethics is making a comeback. With the morality of Big Tech again called into question, schools like MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and Stanford have launched new ethics courses with fanfare. In some cases, students are even demanding such an education, says Casey Fiesler, a professor at the University of Colorado who teaches computer ethics and studies how it’s taught. An internship at Facebook, once regarded as plum, is now just as likely to raise eyebrows. Students are looking for a little moral guidance.

Those who teach ethics don’t need to look far for lessons. Every day there’s fresh scandal: Google is in hot water for how it handles political bias; Amazon listens in as you shout at Alexa. There’s also the growing canon of case studies on which even your totally-offline grandfather could deftly hold court: ProPublica’s investigation of bias in recidivism algorithms that kept black men in jail longer, or the scraping of Facebook of user data by Cambridge Analytica. To make sense of all this, many believe engineering students need a classic humanities education, grounded in philosophy. (Just don’t replicate your biases in the classroom—Ethics Twitter recently bristled over an MIT course on AI bias built around the works of dead white guys.)