3 Questions: David Kaiser and Julie Shah on social and ethical responsibilities of computing

Advancing the study and practice of thinking responsibly in computing education, research, and implementation.

David Kaiser and Julie Shah are on a mission to prepare students and facilitate research to address the broad challenges and opportunities associated with computing. As associate deans of Social and Ethical Responsibilities of Computing (SERC) in the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing, Kaiser and Shah are advancing a number of initiatives they hope will get students and faculty to reflect on 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 aeronautics and astronautics, 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 that are taking shape and how they are tapping into the expertise of colleagues across a wide range of fields to help inform the activities of SERC.

Q: Weaving social and ethical aspects of computing into the curricula is a key mandate of SERC. How are you approaching this challenge and what are some efforts underway?

Kaiser: Every semester we bring together a number of interdisciplinary faculty groups that we call SERC Dean’s Action Groups. Each group consists of eight to 12 members from across MIT. The idea is for them to work together, discuss common research interests, and craft original content that can be embedded into a wide variety of courses and materials, across all levels of instruction, such as new questions for existing assignments and new final projects.

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

Over the past academic year, several faculty members — including Dwai Banerjee and Will Deringer from the Program in Science, Technology, and Society; In Song Kim from the Department of Political Science; and Catherine D’Ignazio from the Department of Urban Studies and Planning; as well as Jacob Andreas, Frédo Durand, Daniel Jackson, Kimberly Koile, and Arvind Satyanarayan in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) — created and incorporated new SERC materials for their respective courses, which was 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) — worked together to redesign each of the 12 weekly labs for the course 6.036 (Introduction to Machine Learning), taught by EECS Professor Leslie Kaebling, to highlight SERC content. 6.036 is a really popular class, with 600 students enrolled last semester, so we managed to reach nearly 15 percent of the undergraduate population as a result.

These are the kinds of steps that will help us towards meeting our goal of prompting responsible ways of thinking in computing education as well as in research and implementation. It’s also part of SERC’s broader mission to incorporate humanist, social science, social considerations, and policy/civic perspectives into everything we do.

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

Kaiser: We interpret ‘social and ethical responsibilities of computing’ broadly on purpose. While some cases focus closely on particular technologies, others look at trends across technological platforms. Still others examine social, historical, philosophical, legal, and cultural facets that are essential for thinking critically about present-day efforts in computing and data science. In curating the series, we made special attempts to solicit cases on topics ranging beyond the United States and that highlight perspectives of people who are affected by various technologies, in addition to perspectives of designers and engineers.

The case studies are brief and modular by design, primarily to be appropriate for undergraduate education, and for users to be able to mix and match the content to fit a variety of pedagogical needs. Each case, which is based on original research and is peer-reviewed, is supported by scholarly 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 across a range of classes and fields of study.

Our first series of cases were well received and we’re looking forward to publishing the second series in August. We’re also excited to share many of the novel active learning projects and homework assignments that our colleagues and students have developed on a companion website that we’re preparing with MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW). Like the case studies site, all of the materials on the new SERC OCW site will be available for free, anywhere in the world.

Q: Many students and researchers are seeking to understand the societal and ethical consequences of technological advancements, especially with the rise of artificial intelligence. How can they get involved?

Shah: The SERC Scholars Program is a new initiative that we just launched to provide avenues for students and postdocs to deepen their engagement in SERC and advance SERC efforts in the college. We’re working from emerging models of students’ participation so far, to design undergraduate pathways, graduate-student pathways, and an expanded postdoctoral program. For each group, the goal is to craft sustainable-level effort over a semester that can build over time. There has also been a focus on designing avenues for engagement so that these are not undertaken as individual efforts but intersect to build and further grow a community.

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

The program is open to students across MIT. These are hourly funded positions with selective and limited yearly enrollment. Many opportunities within each group’s pathway have varying levels of time commitment. We hope that this variety of options will allow a broad range of students and postdocs to participate and help in attracting scholars from diverse backgrounds.

During the previous academic year, we were able to work with three terrific groups of undergraduates through MIT’s Experiential Learning Opportunities initiative. With generous support from the Patrick W. McGovern Foundation, we can now build upon that experience and expand our programs for undergraduate and graduate students. We’re also focusing on building up a postdoc program, designed in collaboration with selectees based on their interests. Each postdoctoral appointment will be based in the scholar’s home unit, which could be the college or one of the other schools or departments at MIT. The SERC portion of their appointment will be dedicated to advancing particular teaching, research, and broader engagement efforts.