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MIT Better World

By Leda Zimmerman

“Whether it’s the large-scale collection of seemingly innocent data from individuals, or the use of artificial intelligence to create deep fakes in political disinformation campaigns, our norms, rules, and laws haven’t caught up,” says Kaiser, the Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science, and professor of physics. “We need to address many challenging questions head on, and right away.”

Named associate deans of the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing (SCC) in September, Kaiser and Shah are spearheading an audacious initiative to embed the social and ethical dimensions of computing into the teaching, research, and public engagement tasks of the new college.

“In my work, I have a full appreciation for the opportunities and challenges of integrating these kinds of considerations into computing,” says Shah, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics, and a roboticist who designs systems in which humans and machines operate side by side. “There are areas where we could and should be doing much better.”

Their initiative, the Social and Ethical Responsibilities of Computing (SERC), evolved during months of meetings with faculty from across the Institute. Catalyzed by these sessions, Shah and Kaiser are developing an approach that draws on the expertise of colleagues from a wide range of fields.

“There is a huge body of knowledge from the social sciences, humanities, and arts to help us frame problems in computing and develop systems for the betterment of mankind, and we need to start tapping into it,” says Shah.

“We need new ideas and insights coming from multiple directions,” says Kaiser. “Getting discussions and collaborations going across different disciplines, and with groups outside the Institute, is both a goal and a measure of our success.”

Fostering ethical thinking

This commitment to cooperation and bridging courses of study is apparent in SERC projects already taking shape in the areas of teaching, research, and public engagement. For instance, collaborations between faculty teaching computing classes and those from fields across the humanities, arts, and social sciences will enable new emphases on global policy implications and social responsibility. The effective integration of such content will not be a trivial add-on.

“At the top of our list of learning objectives is the idea that technology alone can’t solve many problems, and that our tools come with values incorporated in them,” says Shah. “We need to complicate students’ thinking, so as they code, experiment, and build systems, they are cognizant of ethics and impacts.”

One way SERC will accomplish this goal, says Shah, is through courses co-taught by computing faculty and in such subjects as anthropology, philosophy, history, sociology, and management. Another way is by creating a series of short, curated case studies written by experts on such topics as algorithmic bias or automation and the future of work, which could be incorporated into a variety of classes and taught in collaboration with faculty from the humanities, arts, and social sciences.

“We want to make sure that there are substantial, unavoidable moments throughout undergraduate training that equip our students to analyze and make sense of hard problems involving social and ethical responsibility,” says Kaiser. “To do this, they need to get tools and ideas about how different disciplines assess these challenges.” This deliberate effort to spark pedagogical alliances includes the arts, where MIT faculty have much to offer the SCC.

“Amazing scholars here are thinking about what it means to be human and about our interactions with machines,” says Kaiser, and they are already laying the groundwork for partnerships. “The School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences recently approved a new concentration in computing and society that includes courses from nine different departments, including literature.” SERC, say Kaiser and Shah, will build upon resources like these to integrate field-spanning classroom experiences into a coherent mission for the SCC.

New research dimensions

The vision for SERC also includes a robust research arm encompassing computing, allied fields, and areas of study that have not typically been included in collaborative projects.

“We want to spur discussions that should be happening but aren’t,” says Shah. “We plan to bring together an interdisciplinary community on a regular basis to look at the social, ethical, or policy implications of technologies, projects, and current events.”

For example, SERC would provide opportunities for SCC faculty and graduate students to connect with faculty from the other fields of science and engineering as well as humanities, arts, and social sciences who could offer new perspectives on computing-related research problems. And, computing graduate students could engage in a yearlong clinic to tease out the ethical, social, and policy implications of their research—gaining insights they could then include in their dissertations.

“Our goal is to provide structure and opportunity for faculty and graduate students to discover intersections and build relationships with other disciplines,” says Shah. “Then we anticipate that those collaborations will generate new course content that flows back, enriching the MIT curriculum.”

Informal discussions are already sparking such novel content, adds Kaiser, noting that one historian of finance and capitalism is looking forward to incorporating new materials about blockchain and cryptocurrency into his classes, which can be developed in partnership with computing specialists.

Wide impact

In the domain of public engagement, the SERC team hopes to make substantial impacts in both the near- and long-term. One pathway, suggests Kaiser, will be uniting MIT’s “world-class policy experts in computing, data, and society with anthropologists, historians, and philosophers” to produce white papers and proposals that influence government and industry.

But the SERC associate deans are also intrigued by another kind of public engagement. “Many people who are affected by our technologies are not at the table when these tools are being developed,” says Shah. “So we think it’s incredibly important to start building relationships and partnerships with local communities and organizations.”

Kaiser cites a current, non-hypothetical case: Cambridge and Somerville are considering bans on facial recognition software within city limits, as a way of curbing surveillance of citizens and protecting privacy. “All-or-nothing solutions might not be the best way to go,” he says. “Is there a way of getting lots of people in the room from MIT and these communities to discuss contentious issues?”

There’s a precedent for this kind of dialogue. In the 1970s, Kaiser notes, university scientists, Cambridge city officials, and local community members debated the pros and cons of recombinant DNA research. The sometimes fraught discussions yielded a framework of rules and regulations that ultimately laid the groundwork for Kendall Square’s thriving biotechnology industry, an economic driver for Cambridge and beyond.

It’s early days still for SERC, and such public engagement will likely take some time to evolve. But as the two associate deans continue to build their ambitious agenda, they hope the vision they have been articulating will quickly take form on campus. “A big win would be if we generate new collaborations for classrooms, research, and policy, get folks together to talk in new ways, and see new content percolate through the curriculum across a range of departments,” says Kaiser. “That’s a hard thing to do at a university.” Says Shah, “If we can get students and faculty to reflect on the potential ethical, social, and policy implications of new technologies so they develop different habits of mind and action, and then move forward productively with good questions, that would be the ultimate success.”