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Ethics & Technology Initiative

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The technology industry is famous for its defining ambition: moving fast, disrupting the status quo, and pushing the boundaries of what seems possible. This attitude has produced incredible innovations – products and services that improve our lives every day – and it has also led to missteps and dramatic unintended consequences.

The Ethics & Technology Initiative aims to explore the ethical and social dimensions of technology in partnership with those shaping the development of technology. Stanford has a special responsibility to address these topics in light of its role as a seedbed of Silicon Valley, and the Center for Ethics in Society has long championed inquiry at the intersection of technology and human values.

This initiative, led by Ethics Center Faculty Director Rob Reich and Program Manager Hilary Cohen, was inspired by the development of a new undergraduate course, "Computers, Ethics, and Public Policy.” The class, CS 181, will be co-taught in Winter Quarter 2019 by Political Science Professors Reich and Jeremy Weinstein, and Computer Science Professor Mehran Sahami. Driven by the course’s launch, we hope to bring similar conversations to the technology sector more broadly, including to entrepreneurs, investors, product designers, engineers and others.

Throughout the 2018-19 academic year, we will pilot a series of dynamic learning experiences at the intersection of ethics and technology, with the hope of figuring out how to best serve and partner with a diverse set of actors across Silicon Valley for the long term. We will begin by experimenting with tailored offerings for the following groups:

  • Employees at leading tech companies from a variety of teams and levels of seniority
  • Venture capital firms, including their investment teams and portfolio companies
  • Founders and product teams at fast-growing startups

With each experience, we hope to bring about a fundamental shift in how participants, whatever their specific positions, think about their roles as enablers and shapers of technological change in society. With every new innovation, we will encourage people to ask: What am I enabling others to do? What responsibilities does this imply for me as an innovator, a citizen, and a human being?

We are eager to join a growing chorus of voices in Silicon Valley and beyond, who, collectively, will shape the culture of the technology industry. Over time, through this initiative we hope to encourage many individuals – engineers, corporate leaders, policymakers and all of us as users of technology – to more deeply examine the profound ethical questions posed by technological progress. And we hope to stimulate interdisciplinary research focused on these questions by faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students.

This initiative builds upon related programs at the Center, including its Technology & Human Values series and postdoctoral fellows who have worked on the ethics of autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence. The initiative also ties to the Digital Civil Society Lab and the Project on Democracy and the Internet, both at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society.

For questions about the Ethics & Technology initiative, and for opportunities to engage, please email Hilary Cohen.