Computer Science, Philosophy Join Forces on Ethics and Technology

Emerson Emerges
The Philosophy Department is housed in Emerson Hall, which has partnered with the Computer Science Department to offer six courses with bases in both fields.

When Computer Science professor Barbara J. Grosz opened enrollment for Computer Science 108: “Intelligent Systems: Design and Ethical Challenge” for its second year in fall 2016, she received 140 applications for 30 spots. This fall, she again received over 130 applications for her course, which is co-taught with Philosophy professor Jeff Behrends.

According to Grosz, CS 108 is one of six computer science courses this fall that are co-taught by either professors or teaching fellows from the Philosophy department. She said this initiative, which has been growing over the past few years, seeks to to embed ethics into regularly offered Computer Science courses.

The Computer Science department is also preparing to include a Philosophy component into CS 51: “Introduction to Computer Science II” next spring, which boasted the fourth largest undergraduate enrollment in spring 2017.

“After the first year I taught [CS 108], students suggested that we should have more classes like that,” Grosz said. “Because of the huge demand, I realized that we couldn’t create a bunch of specialized courses. Instead, we should integrate ethics into every, or almost every, CS course we teach.”

Philosophy professor Alison Simmons said that along with Grosz, she started recruiting graduate students from the Philosophy department to teach in Computer Science courses.

“Barbara [Grosz] called one day and said ‘Alison, we really need to talk. We should be working together,’” Simmons said. “We need to help students identify and think through the ethical implications of what they are doing in Computer Science.”

Grosz said that Harvard is among the first universities to integrate Philosophy across different Computer Science courses. Instead of offering specialized computer ethics electives, the collaboration with the Philosophy department allowed the project to scale up in size quickly, according to Grosz.

“It’s a win-win situation because it is really a wonderful experience for the Philosophy students,” Grosz said. “It gives them an experience teaching and learning about technology that most Philosophy students in most universities would not find.”

Philosophy graduate student Ronni G. Sadovsky co-taught CS 108 with Grosz last year and said that she especially enjoyed facilitating “first philosophical encounters” for students who have never studied Philosophy.

“Even though we can’t solve the problem, there is a lot more richness we can get out of a detailed, thoughtful analysis of philosophical problems” Sadovsky said. “All the students—regardless of their background in Biology, Math, Computer Science, or even in the humanities—virtually everyone was having an ‘Eureka’ moment.”

Kate Vredenburgh, a Philosophy graduate student who is a teaching fellow in three Computer Science courses this fall, said that she hoped to see the integration of more ethics into research in other disciplines.

“Often I think there is a tendency, when you are working with ethics, to be disconnected with practitioners,” she said. “Being in contact with the material made me aware of some of the current issues that were not on my radar.”

According to Grosz, the Computer Science classes taught this semester that include an ethics component are CS 136: “Economics and Computation,” CS 165: “Data Systems,” CS 182 “Artificial Intelligence,” CS 126: “Fairness, Privacy, and Validity in Data Analysis,” and CS 134: “Networks.”

—Staff writer William L. Wang can be reached at william.wang@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @wlwang20.

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