Engineers need a required course in ethics

We train engineers in efficiency, but we also need them to design for ethical outcomes.
We train engineers in efficiency, but we also need them to design for ethical outcomes.
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This summer, the FaceApp debate exploded on social media, as people questioned the motives of the Russian engineers behind the technology that scanned millions of people’s faces, with no indication of what happened to the data given to the app.

Privacy is presumably top of mind for the general public, but people’s urge to literally see the face of their own future selves seemed to outweigh that threat.

FaceApp may serve no benefit beyond entertainment. But today, every company effectively becomes a tech company by leveraging advanced data analytics to fuel their business.

Biometric surveillance, gender-biased voice technology, shadowy entities accessing your data with a single app download. With nearly every service, gadget, and add-on, we are constantly being asked to put our trust—in the form of our personal data—in brands, big and small.

We upload photos of our kids on social media, monitor our homes with connected cameras, and ask smart speakers to turn on our favorite podcast as we get ready for work.

But we’re not just putting our trust in faceless companies. We’re actually handing our personal data to the individual engineers who work there. These are real people who make crucial decisions that significantly impact our lives and society at large.

But are they qualified to do so?

Typically, engineers are trained to be laser-focused on solving problems in the most effective and efficient way. And those solutions often have ripple effects in society, and create externalities that must be carefully considered.

Given the pace with which we can deploy technology at scale, the decisions of just a few people can have deep and far-reaching impact.

But in spite of the fact that they build potentially society-altering technologies—such as artificial intelligence—engineers often have no training or exposure to ethics. Many don’t even consider it part of their remit.

But it is. In a world where a few lines of code can impact whether a woman lands a job in tech, or how a criminal is sentenced in court, everyone who touches technology must be qualified to make ethical decisions, however insignificant they may seem at the time.

Engineers need to understand that their work may be used in ways that they never intended and consider the broader impact it can have on the world.

How can tech leaders not only create strong ethical frameworks, but also ensure their employees act with “decency” and abide by the ideals and values they’ve set out? And how can leaders in business, government, and education better equip the tech workforce to consider the broader ethical implications of what they build?

Industry leaders need to support and spotlight ethical decisions

I believe tech leaders need to come together in tandem with regulators to build more industry-wide standards. That is, we need to create a shared technology ethics manifesto that elevates the conversation around what it means to be a responsible technology company and an ethical engineer.

Business leaders can’t afford to wait for regulations to be passed to enforce legal or industry policies. The private sector has to work with governments as they develop appropriate regulations. In parallel, they should also recognize their own opportunity to create a foundation and set the right culture from the top, helping to shift the role of engineers within organizations and in society at large. Industry leaders need to clearly define company values and ethical principles—and then also celebrate the people and organizations that uphold these standards, be it through recognition at internal town halls, awards, or other incentives.

This recognition also needs to extend beyond company walls, and be elevated in industry conversations, whether that’s having more transparent discussions with the media or fostering dynamic discussions at industry events.

A diverse tech industry is an ethical tech industry

It’s not enough to simply state your values as a company or industry. Leaders must also take action to ensure they explicitly address the emerging tech trends and challenges of the day, whether it involves data privacy or AI systems.

By declaring ethical data standards, for instance, and striving for high-quality data, we can help prevent bias in algorithm outcomes.

Having diverse engineering teams can lead to better decisions that reduce bias and increase privacy protection, among many other benefits. But his is cannot be the buzzword-diversity we’ve seen too often, for diversity’s sake.

True diversity is about ensuring tech teams consist of people invested in making the right decisions, whether that’s because the end product impacts their community and people they know, or they have personally faced a challenge that the team is solving for.

Would a popular ride-sharing app better protect passengers’ privacy and safety if more women were on the tech and product teams? Would a facial recognition app eliminate cases of mistaken identity if it weren’t designed by a team of all-white designers, who created a product skewed to discern Caucasian features but not features of other ethnicities?

An ethical lens should also be applied to internal development and advancement. If you are not a strong values leader—someone who mentors people on your team and focuses not just on the “what” of a goal, but also the “how” and “why”—then you should not be rewarded with more management responsibility, regardless of your technical performance.

Require ethics for computer science education—at all levels

While we’ve seen an increase of re- and up-skilling on the job, the majority of education still happens in academic institutions.

The higher education sector cannot ignore its role in preparing students for the future of work as quite literally the purpose it serves. That includes integrating ethics into comprehensive computer science curricula.

Universities like MIT are leading the way by creating research collaborations across disciplines such as law and government, finding ways to embed topics around the societal impact of computing into the technical curriculum.

This type of rigorous education shouldn’t be accessible only to students who can get into elite universities. As more jobs require engineering skills, all institutions—from coding boot camps to community college courses to advanced state-funded PhD programs—need to follow suit.

Byte-size change

Despite the need for more action, I’m encouraged by the grassroots efforts of socially-minded technologists who are holding their companies accountable. Many tech giants have had to reconsider strategic business decisions—like using AI and facial recognition for military purposes and immigration enforcement—due to pressure from employees.

As more engineers embrace the immense power of those 0s and 1s, we can finally get on with what motivates so many of us to go to work every day: being a force for good.

Because it’s not just about “changing the world,” to use Silicon Valley parlance; it’s about changing the world for the better.