Ethics throughout a Computer Science curriculum

Every Computer Science student should get significant exposure to the social, political, legal, and ethical issues raised by the accelerating progress in the development and use of digital technologies.

The standard approach is to offer one undergraduate course, typically called Computers and Society or Computer Ethics.  I have done this during the current term at Columbia University, using my new textbook, Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives (OUP, 2019).  We meet twice a week for 75 minutes.  In class, I present key topics covered in the book, and welcome a number of guest speakers who present their own experiences and points of view.  Every class is interactive, as I try to get the students to express their own ideas.  There have been four assignments: a policy brief, a book report, a debate, and a research paper.  Such courses are typically not required by major research universities, which is a mistake, but they are often required by liberal arts colleges.

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Digital technology firms, monopolies, and antitrust actions

Today’s digital technology industries are characterized by intense degrees of corporate concentration.

Amazon revolutionized access to books and continues to grow its market share of both print books and eBook sales — approaching 50% of print sales and more than 90% of eBook sales.  It is also starting to dominate the sale of many other kinds of goods, and now vigorously seeks a dominant market share in sectors such as grocery retailing and pharmacies. Facebook, which owns 54% of the social media market, is responsible for a great deal of the Internet hate speech and fake news nightmares we face today. Google, which revolutionized the business of search, and now owns 76% percent of that market, seems to manipulate the search engine algorithm for its own commercial benefit.  Apple, which demonstrated that it was possible to design for ease of learning and ease of use and still achieve commercial success, now owns 66% of the tablet market and 22% of the mobile phone market, and seems to manipulate the policies of software distribution on its platforms for its own commercial benefit.

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The tweetocracy

A session at the New Yorker Festival this past weekend discussing how history will judge Trump got me thinking again about media, tweeting, and Donald J. Trump.

Media play a huge role in politics. Here are some examples. In the medium of a large enclosed space filled with people, Adolf Hitler was able to whip crowds to a frenzy. Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his radio fireside chats reassured Americans that they could and would survive the economic hardships of the Great Depression. Winston Churchill’s stirring oratory during World War II lifted the spirits of people in Great Britain despite the Germans’ intense aerial bombardment.  John F Kennedy‘s photogenic and relaxed television manner when contrasted with Richard Nixon’s swarthy scowling played a huge role in his victory in the 1960 US presidential election.  Finally, Ronald Reagan’s commanding performances in televised addresses and his style of speaking to Americans in ways that they could understand and could trust justified his being called “the great communicator“.

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Power, politics, and the internet

Contributed by Uma Kalkar. Uma is a senior undergraduate at the University of Toronto and 2019-2020 International Presidential Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress researching the politics of domestic and national digital divides.

In 2016, the United Nations classified internet access as a human right, deeming that cutting or censoring the internet by states impinges on personal freedoms. Unfortunately, conflict-heavy zones and politically unstable states deny their citizens unfiltered internet in order to isolate and control discussion and debate. Through internet censorship, governments attempt to hide regime atrocities and to revise history.

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Must computer science students learn about ethics?

My textbook — Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives — may be used in a variety of courses and contexts, but is intended primarily for use by Computer Science (CS) Departments, as they attempt to educate and train tomorrow’s software professionals, managers, and IT leaders. If we want to monitor how well departments are doing this job, we should ask is if they are sensitizing their students to the ethical responsibilities of the profession. It is useful to contrast the attitudes and performance of CS Departments, typically situated in science faculties, with departments in Faculties of Engineering.

Concern over ethics in Engineering began after several major disasters late in the 19th century and early in the 20th century, notably several bridge failures and the Boston molasses disaster, in which a flood or molasses wreaked havoc on nearby building and train systems.  There already had been created professional societies such as the American Society of Civil Engineers and the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.  These societies then moved quickly to introduce Codes of Ethics and requirements for licensing and accreditation, which ultimately caused university departments and faculties to include some learning about and practice with ethical concerns as part of their curricula.  A later development was the creation in 1954 by the National Society of Professional Engineers of a Board of Ethical Review.

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Deep fakes for manipulating elections

People generally agree that the Russians have for at least three years been election hacking, notably in the US 2016 presidential election, but also in other parts of the world, as well as in important votes such as the UK referendum on Brexit.  What happened in the US election was substantiated as early as in a January 2017 by a report from US intelligence agencies, and as recently as March 2019 by the Mueller Report.  These reports, and the landmark 2018 book Cyberwar by Professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson, assert convincingly that this interference did in fact help to elect Donald Trump.

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Personal space in the age of addictive technology

Approximately two months ago, I had brunch with a friend and colleague — Fred, not his real name — who I had known for over 40 years.  I had not seen him in six months.  Over the space of an hour, he received at least six calls on his cell phone from family members.  Based on what I could hear of his responses, no interruption dealt with an urgent matter.

Several times a year, I have dinner with dear friends of over 30 years, a vigorous professional couple in their 70s with accomplishments in the arts, the sciences, and public service.  Ann — also not her real name — is constantly using her phone to google for facts that will contribute to the conversation.  Her fact-checking is typically interesting, but is there a cost?

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Disruption and societal responsibility

In April 2019, I took a limo to Toronto’s international airport at the close of a workday.  I live near the downtown hockey arena, where the city’s beloved Maple Leafs were about to start game 4 in a Stanley Cup hockey elimination round.  These two factors as well as mandated detours slowed traffic significantly.  I was feeling social, so asked the driver about the effects of Uber on his livelihood.  Did I get an earful!

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