3 Questions: David Kaiser and Julie Shah on Social and Ethical Responsibilities of Computers | MIT News

David Kaiser and Julie Shah are on a mission to prepare students and facilitate research to address the broad challenges and opportunities associated with computer science. As associate deans of Social and Ethical Responsibilities of Computing (SERC) at MIT’s Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing, Kaiser and Shah are promoting a number of initiatives that they hope will encourage students and educators to think about the potential social , ethical and policy implications of new technologies.

To help guide their efforts, Kaiser, the Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science and Professor of Physics, and Shah, Professor of Aerospace and Aerospace, have developed a teaching, research and engagement framework for SERC that includes case studies, active learning projects and building a community of scholars. Here they discuss projects taking shape and how they are leveraging the expertise of colleagues in a wide range of areas to inform SERC’s activities.

Q: Weaving social and ethical aspects of computer science into curricula is an important mandate of SERC. How do you approach this challenge and what efforts are underway?

emperor: Every semester we bring together a number of interdisciplinary faculty groups that we call Action groups of SERC Dean. Each group is made up of eight to 12 members from across MIT. The idea is that they collaborate, discuss common research interests and create original content that can be embedded in a wide variety of courses and materials, at all levels of instruction, such as new questions for existing assignments and new final projects.

The action groups are modeled after successful workshops organized by MIT’s Teaching and Learning Laboratory. To date, we have launched five action groups in three focus areas: active learning projects; AI and public policy; and computing, data and anti-racism.

In the past academic year, several faculty members – including Dwai Banerjee and Will Deringer of the Science, Technology and Society program; In Song Kim of the Department of Political Science; and Catherine D’Ignazio of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning; as well as Jacob Andreas, FrAredo Durand, Daniel Jackson, Kimberly Koile and Arvind Satyanarayan of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) — created and incorporated new SERC materials for their respective courses, which were a direct result of their work in recent Action Groups for Active learning projects.

shah: In addition, a team of advanced graduate students – from EECS and the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL); Philosophy; and History, Anthropology and Science, Technology and Society (HASTS) — collaborated to redesign each of the 12 weekly labs for the 6.036 (Introduction to Machine Learning) course, taught by EECS professor Leslie Kaebling, to incorporate the SERC content to emphasize. 6,036 is a very popular class, with 600 students enrolled last semester, so we’ve managed to reach almost 15 percent of the student population.

These are the kinds of steps that will help us achieve our goal of encouraging responsible thinking, both in computer education and in research and implementation. It is also part of SERC’s broader mission to incorporate humanistics, social sciences, social considerations and policy/societal perspectives into everything we do.

Q: In February, the SERC published a new series of case studies. How can the cases help students and researchers to better understand the social, economic and other implications of the systems they design in a holistic way?

emperor: We deliberately interpret ‘social and ethical responsibilities of computers’ broadly. While some cases focus heavily on certain technologies, others look at trends across technology platforms. Still others explore social, historical, philosophical, legal, and cultural facets essential to critically reflecting on current computer science and data science efforts. In compiling the series, we made special efforts to apply for cases on topics beyond the United States, highlighting the perspectives of people affected by different technologies, in addition to the perspectives of designers and engineers.

The case studies are short and modular in design, primarily to suit undergraduate education, and allow users to mix and match the content to meet different pedagogical needs. Each case, which is based on original research and peer-reviewed, is backed by a scientific apparatus of notes and references, but we don’t intend to stick to any particular format. The main goal of the series is to present important material in engaging ways for students in a variety of classes and subject areas.

Our first set of cases was well received and we look forward to publishing the second set in August. We are also excited to share many of the new active learning projects and homework assignments developed by our colleagues and students on a companion website we are preparing with MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW). Like the case study site, all material on the new SERC OCW site will be available free of charge, anywhere in the world.

Q: Many students and researchers are trying to understand the societal and ethical implications of technological progress, especially with the rise of artificial intelligence. How can they participate?

shah: The HEART Scholars Program is a new initiative we just launched to provide opportunities for students and postdocs to deepen their engagement with SERC and advance SERC efforts in the college. To date, we have been working from emerging models of student participation to design undergraduate, graduate, and comprehensive postgraduate programs. For each group, the goal is to make sustainable-level efforts over a semester that can be built up over time. Attention has also been paid to designing avenues for engagement so that they are not undertaken as individual efforts, but intersect to build and grow a community.

For example, we work with campus partners to provide additional opportunities for SERC Scholars, such as participation in research projects through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, and internships that promote computing in the public interest through the Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center. We also partner with MIT student groups, including the Ethical Technology Initiative, AI Ethics Reading Group, and Science Policy Initiative, to organize extracurricular and social activities for scientists.

The program is open to MIT students. These are hourly funded positions with selective and limited annual enrollment. Many opportunities within the trajectory of each group have different levels of time commitment. We hope that this variety of options will enable a wide range of students and postdocs to participate and help attract scholars from diverse backgrounds.

During the last academic year, we had the opportunity to work with three amazing groups of students through MIT’s Experiential Learning Opportunities initiative. With generous support from the Patrick W. McGovern Foundation, we can now build on that experience and expand our programs for undergraduate and graduate students. We also focus on establishing a postdoc program designed in collaboration with selected candidates based on their interests. Any postgraduate appointment will be in the scholar’s home unit, which may be the college or one of MIT’s other schools or departments. The SERC portion of their nomination will be devoted to advancing specific education, research and wider engagement efforts.

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