CODE OF HONOR

The founder of Craigslist is funding a competition to make computer science more ethical

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What have you been doing to help promote democracy recently?

Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist, has certainly been doing his part. His invention may have helped decimate classified-advertising revenue for print newspapers, but last month, he gave $20 million to a team of experienced journalists to investigate the power of Big Tech. In June, he gave $20 million to the CUNY journalism program, so the next generation of journalists can do the same. And today (Oct. 10), he announced he’s helping to fund a new competition called The Responsible Computer Science Challenge to incorporate more ethical training into undergraduate computer science curricula.

The initiative, which was incubated by Omidyar Network, and is also backed by Mozilla, and Schmidt Futures, is soliciting proposals from professors and graduate students about how to make ethics a central part of a software engineer’s education. A panel of independent judges will award up to $3.5 million in prizes to the winners.

The competition couldn’t come at a better time.

Over the past year, we’ve had a front-row seat to the result of code that was written without enough consideration for its societal implications. There have been a number of high-profile data breaches, algorithms that develop biases, and products that were shipped without adequate safety testing—the damage from which might have been mitigated if the engineers building the products had given more thought to the consequences of their creations.

“When we started scoping the interventions make a big difference, we went back to see that in the way computer scientists were trained, there was a big gap,” says Paula Goldman, the head of Omidyar Network’s new Tech and Society Solutions Lab.  “We want the next generation of technologists to know that thinking about ethics is not someone else’s job.”

There has been a push from some universities to offer opportunities for engineers to study ethics, but according to Goldman, they’re the exception, not the rule. Further, social impact courses are often offered as electives rather than made part of the required curricula.

Today’s computer science students will build the technologies of tomorrow. Giving them a framework to wrestle with the implications of their work—for good and for bad—is a good place start.