There is now,Â at long last, wide concern over the negative effects of technology, along with callsÂ toÂ teach ethics to engineers. But critique is not enough. What tools are available to the working engineerÂ to identify and mitigateÂ theÂ potential harms of their work?
I’ve been teachingÂ the effects of technology on societyÂ for some time, and we cover a lot of it in my computational journalism course.Â This is an outline for a broader hands-on course, which I’m calling the Ethical Engineering Lab.
This eight-week course is a hands-on introduction to the practiceÂ of what you might call harm-aware software engineering. I’ve structured it around the Institute for the Future’s Ethical OS, a framework I’ve found useful for categorizing the places where technology intersects with personal and socialÂ harm. Each class is three hours long, split between lecture and lab time. Students must complete a project investigating actualÂ or potentialÂ harms from technology, and theirÂ mitigations.
Each lecture is structured around a set of issues, cases whereÂ technologyÂ is or could be involved in harm, andÂ tools, methods for mitigating these harms. The goal is toÂ train students in the current state-of-the-art of these problems, which often requires a deep dive into both the social and technical perspectives. We will study both differential privacy algorithms and HIPAA health data privacy. In many cases there isÂ disagreement over the potential for certain harms and their seriousness, so we will exploreÂ the tradeoffs of possible design choices.