Research News

Tech giants award UB $150,000 to bring ethics into computer science classes

Two students working on a drone.

UB students working with drones. Photo: Douglas Levere

By CORY NEALON

Published June 20, 2019

headshot of Atri Rudra.
“In higher education, ethics have largely been an afterthought for computer science and engineering programs. That is changing.”
Atri Rudra, associate professor
Department of Computer Science and Engineering

Is it OK for the court system to use software for bail and sentencing decisions? Could new artificial intelligence software be used in a harmful way?

It’s these types of questions and more that UB undergraduate computer science and engineering majors will grapple with under a new curriculum being developed by a multidisciplinary team of professors.

“Coding. Theory and algorithms. Artificial intelligence. Distributed systems. Embedded systems. All are fundamental to a balanced computer science and engineering education. Now, more than ever, ethics are needed as well,” says Atri Rudra, associate professor of computer science and engineering, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Rudra is principal investigator of a $150,000 grant awarded to UB by the Responsible Computer Science Challenge, a competition funded by Omidyar Network (created by the founder of eBay), Mozilla, Schmidt Futures (created by a former Google executive), and Craig Newmark Philanthropies (created by Craigslist’s founder). It works to “integrate ethics and responsibility” into U.S. higher education computer science programs.

UB was one of 17 educational institutions nationwide to receive the award, organizers announced in April.

“In higher education, ethics have largely been an afterthought for computer science and engineering programs. That is changing. We’re going to ensure that our computer science majors have a strong ethical foundation when they leave UB and go on to become leaders in the workplace,” Rudra says.

Additional investigators include Varun Chandola, Kenneth Joseph, Jesse Hartloff, Matthew Hertz, Steven Ko and Jennifer Winikus, all from the Department of Computer Science and Engineering; Matthew Bolton from the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering; Jonathan Manes from the School of Law; and Mark Shepard from the departments of Architecture and Media Study.

While Rudra and the team of researchers are still fleshing out details of the curriculum, preliminary plans call for:

  • First-year students will first encounter ethics in the required seminar “How the Internet works.”
  • Sophomores will be exposed to ethics in their algorithms course in the context of responsible algorithmic development for real-world problems.
  • Juniors and seniors will then see ethics in the context of artificial intelligence in their machine learning course.
  • Finally, students will be required to incorporate ethical thinking into their senior-year capstone course.

Throughout the curriculum, students will be encouraged to apply ethical principles to real-world case studies, Rudra says. Additionally, researchers will bring ethical views from other fields to bear on computer science and engineering student projects.