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Ethics and Technology minor helps Stanford student harness technology responsibly

Nov 3 2019
Nicole Feldman

Visit any news site on any given day, and you’re bound to find the word “technology” alongside words like “controversial,” “criticism,” “safety,” “disinformation,” and “scandal.” Questions about the ethics of technology abound, and the world wants answers. What types of posts should social media sites ban? What privacy rights should people have? How will AI and genetic engineering change what it means to be human? How do you keep racial and social bias out of algorithms? How should entrepreneurs and policymakers think about technology’s effects on society?

Many Stanford students have stepped up to find answers to these questions, and the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society has provided a way to work through them with the new Ethics and Technology minor.

The minor examines the moral complexity of emerging technologies and encourages students to think critically about their impact. Courses cover everything from data privacy to algorithmic bias to genetic engineering to biotechnology and more. Since coursework crosses a variety of fields, students can easily tailor the minor to match their interests.

We asked the minor’s first enrolled student, Elena Mosse ‘21, what attracted her to the program and how it will add value to her studies and her life after Stanford. Mosse is majoring in Symbolic Systems, studying the interactions between technology and humanity.

What are you studying at Stanford?

I am studying Symbolic Systems with a concentration in Human-Computer Interaction. My courses are primarily comprised of technical computer science classes supplemented with courses in philosophy, psychology and linguistics. I find computer science to be an incredibly empowering tool, with limitless applications to all disciplines and fields. My strongest passion lies in the intersection between technology and humanity, in which I can explore questions like how does technology affect humanity and how does society in turn shape technology.

Why did you choose the Ethics and Technology Minor?

The Symbolic Systems curriculum has been incredible in supporting my exploration of technology as a powerful tool for advancing nearly any field or discipline. However, in the more tech-centric classes I took, I found myself eager to not only learn how people can harness the power of technology, but also how it can be harnessed responsibly (and irresponsibly). With recent news flooded with reports of tech giants’ role in ethical and legal complications like privacy breaches, unwanted surveillance, illegal data collection and political manipulation, I think society is grappling with a nascent realization that unchecked technological power may hurt us more than help us.

Outside of my major, I am also very involved in the social entrepreneurship sphere, and have worked for tech-based organizations with social missions at their cores, so I have also become increasingly aware of how technology can positively impact society and the environment. Acknowledging the spectrum of technology’s impact has driven me to pursue developing a framework in which I can analyze technology in the context of what and who it affects, which I believe the Ethics and Technology minor will support me in doing.

What courses are you most looking forward to taking?

Two courses I am particularly excited to take are Lies, Trust, and Tech (CS 124) with Jeffrey Hancock and Ethics, Public Policy, and Technological Change (CS 182) with Rob Reich, Mehran Sahami and Jeremy Weinstein. CS 124 explores technology’s role in deception, both on an interpersonal level and on a society-wide level. CS 182 takes an interdisciplinary approach to studying legal and ethical applications to tech, focusing on several topics ranging from data privacy and civil liberties to AI and autonomous systems. Both classes are incredibly relevant (just look at any day’s headline news) and aim to arm students with a framework to approach technology’s most prevalent upcoming ethical dilemmas.

In your opinion, why is it important to think about the ethics of technology?

I think it is incredibly important to not only arm students with a robust skill set, but to also prepare them with a framework to consider the ethical implications of what they can do with these skills -- which I believe applies to all disciplines. There are incredibly brilliant minds who will undoubtedly change the world with technology. My hope is that arming them with a framework to consider the impact of how they choose to apply their knowledge will result in more positively-impactful advancements.

How do you think exploring the ethics of technology will affect your life and career after Stanford?

I think the Ethics and Technology minor will provide me with skills to analyze projects for their potential for positive impact as well as risks of ethical shortcomings. Furthermore, the ethics and technology course offerings cover a diverse set of disciplines with classes in international policy, communications, management science and engineering, philosophy, history and more. Studying the application of ethics to technology through a variety of lenses only increases the framework’s applications which I will use in my decision-making both inside and outside of my work in technology.

"The Buzz" is the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society's media portal for ethics-related news on campus and beyond. We review events and speakers, and we feature initiatives that are of broad interest. A wide range of voices author the articles, including undergraduate students.