Ethics in Computer Science Update: From Nothing to Something

A week and a half ago, I blogged about the level of discussion of ethical issues relating to computer science at my university. Since then, I have had a lot of encouraging and positive conversations with people about this, and real progress is being made in the computer science department at the University of Oxford (where I am currently an undergraduate).

There is work to be done to make this happen, and make it effective and useful for current and future computer science students. This post will serve as an update on the progress that is being made, as well as a call for input from anyone who is interested in this topic.

What is happening

When I first started thinking about this, I emailed the (very helpful) academic administrator, who recommended that I talk about it with one of the undergraduate course representatives, who could then bring it up at the termly meeting between the course reps and the staff. I did that, and the meeting finally took place a bit more than a week ago, where my idea was discussed between some students and staff.

The response from that has been pretty positive. A few people have expressed an interest, especially one particular professor in the department who has been very supportive. He told me that he is interested in introducing some ethics-based content into the course and that he will be involved in designing the course curriculum so has an opportunity to have an influence on that.

The main concern seems to the the worry that it will only be effective if it's interesting to the students. Apparently there was some kind of ethics content in the course a few years ago, but nobody showed up to it, so they dropped it.

Along with course rep Sam Lanning and the other third year course rep, I have arranged a meeting for this Thursday, open to all students in the department, to find out about what kind of content people are interested in and what form they would like it to take (an examined part of the course, a seminar series, some kind of practical(?)).

In the meantime, I am trying to find out more about what kind of ethics content is involved in undergraduate computer science degrees at other universities. If you have any experience or thoughts on any of these topics, please get in touch! Your thoughts and experiences could have an impact on the future of ethics in computer science at this institution and in the wider community.

What people have said

Since my last post I have talked to people in real life and online about this effort. The initial reaction I get is usually a bemused "Ethics? In computer science? Really?". But once I mention a few words along the lines of 'privacy', 'Facebook', 'NSA', and 'military research funding', it clicks with people, and they agree that this is a really important issue which isn't talked about enough.

One interesting conversation I had was with an academic who isn't in computer science now, but did a year of a computer science PhD before switching to another field. He told me that when he started his PhD, he went through the whole application process, had interviews, got in, moved across the world for his studies, and only at that point did someone say "You don't have a problem with the fact that this work is all funded by the US army, right?". I think this story makes a great case for more discussion of ethics at an undergraduate level: it hadn't occurred to this person that the PhD he was embarking on would be ultimately funded by the military. But if that kind of thing had been discussed during his undergraduate degree in computer science, then he might have been more aware of the possibility, and looked into it before accepting his place. Then he would have been able to make an informed decision about whether he felt comfortable with that -- rather than merely being encouraged to go along with it when it was too late to turn back.

Something interesting I found out on Twitter is that BCS-accredited degrees are required to include some ethics-based content. My department's undergraduate degrees are not BCS-accredited. But if you study, or studied, at a university which is BCS-accredited, I would love to hear from you about what form that ethics material took, and what you thought was good or bad about the way they did it.

Please get in touch

Please get in touch by email or Twitter (@modusgolems) (or reach Sam on Twitter) if you have any thoughts or experiences with ethics education for computer science. Any input is massively helpful and very much appreciated!