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Computing Ethics (Fall 2021)

Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, University of Washington


Teaching Assistant

Course Details

Time: Tuesdays & Thursdays, 10:00am-11:20am PST

Location: CSE2 271

Flexible office hours: Email Katharina and Suchin with a few times that work for you! Office hours and any meetings outside of class will be held via Zoom.

This course is a quals course that counts towards the quals requirement in the human-facing bucket of the CSE PhD program.

Course Description

From smart glasses invoking fears of surveillance to social media being flooded by fake news, our society increasingly bears the burden of unintended consequences of technology. As researchers of technology, data scientists, and software developers, we must be aware of the effects that technology has on society and recognize our responsibility to grapple with computer ethics.

In this seminar course, we will discuss the goals of ethics, philosophical approaches to ethics, our own responsibilities, and the many kinds of ethical issues that impact technology and society today. Students will also learn different approaches to anticipating unintended consequences of technology. In a quarter-long research project, they will use these perspectives and approaches to discuss and address issues of applied technologies in areas such as artificial intelligence, user interface design, facial recognition, misinformation, accessibility, and privacy.

Course type and structure

The course is designed to be a very interactive and discussion-based seminar. There will be occasional lectures, in-class presentations, and discussions of course projects.

Part of the course will require you to conduct a quarter-long research project on the topic of computer ethics, such as compiling counter data to existing datasets, conducting a technical audit, interview studies, value sensitive design analyses, or similar to quantify disparities, etc. These research projects should be done in pairs. For each research project, you are required to present your results in a written paper draft and orally in class.

Most lectures will be structured the following way:

  • ~40 minutes of paper discussions, led by a discussion lead
  • ~40 minutes of one of the following:
    • an in-class activity (e.g., applying a framework for anticipating unintended consequences of technology to a specific product);
    • A talk by an invited speaker
    • Idea and project fairs (each team presents their projects)
    • Peer-feedback sessions on class projects

Learning goals

After taking this course, students will know:

  • The appropriate terminology to discuss and think critically about technology;
  • Goals and philosophical approaches to ethics and how to apply these in multifaceted discussions of technology;
  • The key literature on societal and environmental unintended consequences of technology;
  • Our responsibilities as researchers in a variety of fields;
  • How to apply tools and strategies for anticipating unintended consequences of technology, such as technical audits, tarot cards of tech, value sensitive design analyses, the delphi method, etc.
  • How to conduct a research project on the topic of computer ethics to gain a deep understanding of ethical issues surrounding a specific technology.

Pre-requisites and who this course is for

There are no pre-requisites for this class. While the course is designed for UW CSE graduate students (in any area of CS research), I welcome any UW graduate student in related fields. Basically, if you produce and use data, develop technology, and are part of our society, then this course is for you.

Course Inspirations

This syllabus was inspired by many other ethics classes offered at the UW and elsewhere, including Jared Moore and Dan Grossman’s CSE492e (UW), Casey Fiesler’s INFO 4601 (UC Boulder), Amy Bruckman’s CS 4863 (Georgia Tech), Joi Ito and Jonathan Zittrain’s MAS.S64 (MIT). Thanks to Jared Moore, Dan Grossman, and Krzysztof Gajos for sharing materials and thoughts on this class!

The design for our discussion roles was inspired by this blog post on role playing in seminars.