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Rethinking Computer Science at Harvard

It’s no question that technology is a core driver of today’s society. We use technology to conduct financial and commercial transactions, maintain friendships, and even find love. Every day, innovators dream up new business models that leverage the latest breakthroughs, including “Uber for dog walking” or yet another way to share photos or book a place to stay while on vacation. Perhaps less flashy and less profitable, but just as newsworthy, is technology’s ability to do real good in the world. Examples include expanding access to social safety net benefits and automating record clearances for tens of thousands of individuals convicted for possessing now-decriminalized substances.

However, it’s hard for Harvard students to envision pathways in social impact careers like nonprofit work and public service when our gateway computer science course — Computer Science 50 — is sponsored by some of the biggest companies in tech. CS50’s own website acknowledges support from Facebook and Google, and previous reporting has also named Amazon and Microsoft as financial backers. Company employees and recruiters are visible — often in brightly-colored company shirts — at recommended and required course events, including “Puzzle Day,” the CS50 hackathon, and the course’s final project fair.

CS50 is perennially one of Harvard’s most popular fall courses and it feeds a fast-growing Computer Science department. As such, it would better serve Harvard students and the broader community if it reframed its focus from being a class with a high production value made possible by corporate sponsors to one that builds a focus on social impact and the ethical use of new, innovative technology.

Four years ago, another writer in these pages argued eloquently: “What if Ec10, Harvard’s introductory economics course, gained corporate sponsorships from the biggest investment banks and held an annual ‘bankathon’ for financial modeling? My bet is the Harvard community would go berserk.” In the intervening years, many of the industry’s largest companies (and CS50 sponsors) have been held to account — whether for lax privacy settings that enabled the Cambridge Analytica leaks or for less-than-ideal responses to serious employee concerns of sexual harassment and misconduct. It is time for our campus community to reconsider whether these relationships are still “mutually beneficial,” as course head David J. Malan ’99 once stated.

Whether intentionally or not, CS50’s relationships with tech companies have reinforced the peer pressure and prestige effects that drive students to pursue roles in Silicon Valley. By rethinking CS50’s cozy relationship with tech companies and reframing its curriculum to emphasize social impact and civic applications of technology, the Computer Science department would better prepare its graduates to fulfill Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana’s frequent charge to become “citizens and citizen-leaders” in society. Doing so would fall squarely within Harvard’s liberal arts focus and according to research, would also likely increase the proportion of women in computing at Harvard — which was a dismal 25 percent in the graduating class of 2016.

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In recent semesters, I have been heartened to see the growth of the Embedded EthiCS collaboration between the departments of philosophy and computer science to “bring ethical reasoning into the computer science curriculum.” Just this week, I have seen two Computer Science professors dwell on the EthiCS discussion planned out on their syllabi as they provided the usual shopping week overview, reminding students in one case that, “just because we have data doesn’t mean we should use it.”

Though a small change — one class session over the course of 12 or 13 weeks — Embedded EthiCS is a positive step in urging all computer science students to consider the potential risks and harms of what they learn in the classroom. Especially in an age where algorithms are introducing sexist biases into recruiting processes and where facial recognition and mass surveillance threaten civil liberties at home and abroad, ethics should play a more and more central role in classroom discussions about these technologies.

As my peers and I move through Harvard Yard and its surrounding buildings this week in hopes of finalizing our schedules, we will consider many factors — student feedback in the “Q guide;” the timing of midterms, papers, and other key deadlines; concentration and General Education requirements — before making our decisions. For more and more students in the Computer Science and related departments, I hope that considerations of ethical and social use of the technologies taught will also be one such consideration.

Chris Kuang ’20 is an Applied Math concentrator in Lowell House.

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