On the Difficult Task of Teaching Computer Ethics to Engineers
Catholic University of Milano.
Corresponding Author: Norberto Patrignani, email@example.com
This paper addresses the challenges of teaching computer ethics to engineers. The computer professionals are identified as the starting point of the stakeholder's network of ICT and as a consequence it is underlined the importance of computer ethics courses for engineers. To this purpose, a simple
Keywords: stakeholders network, proactive computer ethics, complex socio- technical systems, Slow Tech.
In order to address the many aspects of the social and ethical impacts of computing, one of the most useful tools is the so called "stakeholders network". By designing a typical stakekolders network related to Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), one will find a complex net of nodes and relationships (see fig.1):
Figure 1. A typical ICT stakeholders' network
It is very clear that at the core of this network there are the three main stakeholders: ICT vendors, ICT Users, and Policy makers. But the main agents that are shaping the society are the large ICT vendors: the companies that are providing ICT innovations to society. At the "core" of these companies one will find the main actors: the persons that design ICT products, hardware, software, networks, and services and related Human Computer Interactions (HCI). They use all the technologies (from cloud computing to big data, from the
3.5Trillion Dollars (Gartner, 2017). These persons are the ICT designers: computer professionals. Due to their role, they have a growing impact on society and a growing responsibility in their hands towards to users and the environment. For this reason this paper concentrates the attention on computer professionals the 'core' stakeholders of ICT. The paper starts from the definition of computer ethics, then investigates the educational pipeline that creates these persons and in particular on the introduction of the subject "Computer Ethics" in universities. The question then becomes: what could be a good methodology for teaching computer ethics to (computer) engineers? What tools could be introduced in these computer ethics classes for engineers? It is proposed a simple methodology based on
Concentrating on computer professionals
The field of Computer Ethics has evolved since 1950 when the founder, Norbert Wiener, recommended to take into account the social and ethical impacts of computing. From the very beginning of his work, at the dawn of computer age, Wiener invited the scientific community to recognize its responsibility in front of society (Wiener, 1954). Nowadays, there are many definitions of Computer Ethics. The definition of Walter Maner: as the field of study that examines "ethical problems aggravated, transformed or created by computer technology" (Maner, 1980). The definition of James Moor: as the discipline that should help us in clarifying and filling the "policy vacuums" created by new information and communication technologies (ICT), an applied ethics deserved by those special machines due to their "logical malleability" (Moor, 1985),. The definition of Deborah Johnson: as the applied ethics needed for facing the "new twists" given by computers to
This paper elaborates on the ground of the Gotterbarn's approach: in order to make a difference, computer ethics should be part of the computer professionals background. But where do computer professionals come from?
Computer ethics for engineers
Most of computer professionals come from computer science or computer engineering university studies. An important milestone in the history of computer ethics was indeed the introduction of the "Social and Professional Issues" content in the undergraduate
computing curriculum in the US in 1991. Since then, the Computer Science Body of
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Knowledge formally includes seven core units (History of computing, Social context of computing, Methods and tools of analysis, Professional and ethical responsibilities, Risks and liabilities of
A proposed methodology for teaching computer ethics to engineers
Among the several possible approaches for introducing computer ethics for engineers the one that, in our experience, is the most fruitful is the
The first goal of this discussion is to write down a detailed description of the scenario under analysis. For and engineer, this apparently simple task, is already a very useful exercise: with simple words and without using technical details they should be able to provide a description of the case (that of course includes complex computer systems) understandable to a lay person. In this step students develop the skill of "social analysis": the capability of describing a scenario that could include many level of social analysis, from individuals to communities, from organizations to cultures, institutions, at national and global level!
The second task for the students is to design the complete stakeholders network involved with the case under analysis. This simple task for many engineers represents the opportunity to discover the many agents impacted by the complex systems that they design, in a way, it is a reflecting action potentially able to trigger an initial ethical awareness and skills (Kavathatzopoulos, 2012), to handle the problem at hand (Kavathatzopoulos & Laaksoharju, 2010).
The third task, after a sufficient reflecting time to analyze the stakeholders network, is to identify possible conflicts and ethical dilemmas. Here the background provided by the teacher is very important, since for many of them it is the first time that they establish a soft link between the technologies they work on and ethics.
The fourth and final task for students is to make some proposals, maybe just elaborating possible different scenarios (that could mitigate, if not solve, the ethical dilemmas).
This four steps methodology for addressing computer ethics dilemmas has been introduced at graduate school of Politecnico of Torino since 2008 with excellent results: it is the most requested course by PhD students.
The background for this course is strongly related to the approaches proposed by Gotterbarn and Bynum. In his "Captsone course in computer ethics" Gotterbarn proposes a mixed approach requiring both technical and philosophical competences. The goals of the "captstone" course include: "student socialization into professionals norms, student recognition of role responsibilities, student awareness of the nature of the profession, student ability to anticipate ethical issues, student ability to reason from professional standards to practical applications, student ability to solve ethical problems morally or technically" (Gotterbarn, 1991) In his method for case analysis Bynum propose the steps: "take the ethical point of view, develop a detailed description of the case to be analyzed, try to ‘see’ the ethical issues and any ‘traditional’ solutions that fit the case, call upon your own ethical knowledge and skills, get the advice of others, get advantage of one or more systematic analysis techniques, draw relevant ethical conclusions about the case, draw relevant lessons about the future" (Bynum, 2009).
Teaching computer ethics to engineers is a difficult but fascinating task: exploring and questioning a real scenario together with students with a
The above approaches have something in common: they all start from the analysis of a real case, then they propose a discussion and a "description" of the case. This is the first challenge for a student coming from several years of technical education: to use a simple language in a text! Articulating a textual description (no formal languages, no formulas, no models!) it is in itself an
It is also useful to organize the group in several teams for "role playing": the Developers (the "techies"), the Users, and the Policy Makers. This "trick" enforces them to deepening their knowledge about the content related to the case but from a precise perspective.
Then the teachers stimulate with probing questions the debate and try to keep the
discussion on three main levels of discussion: brainstorming (just free discussion with
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somebody keeping notes or putting stickers on a wall), a "soft" normative approach (can be useful a Code of Ethics? Some "soft" law?), laws (can policy makers define new legal frameworks useful in the case under analysis? Some "hard" laws?).
Also, often during the discussion it is quite usual to see how spontaneously emerge four different dimensions of the discussion: "Architecture" (engineers that proposes a "techno- fix" approach, technology creates and solve(!) ethical dilemmas), "Education" (the importance to educate people towards a wise use of technology), "Market" (no problem, the market will spontaneously find a solution), and "Law" (we need an "authority" able to enforce a norm). It is impressive to note that it is very close to the framework explored by Lawrence Lessig in 1999, in his
The methodology can be summarized by the four steps:
1.SCENARIO (describe and analyze a real case)
2.STAKEHOLDERS' NETWORK (identify stakeholders and their relationships)
3.ETHICAL ISSUES (identify social and ethical issues)
4.ALTERNATIVE SCENARIO(s) (envisage and evaluate alternative courses of action).
By applying this methodology engineers are also acquiring skills that enable them to be compliant with the new requirements coming from the International Federation for Information Processing (IFIP): "... definition of computer professional: ... Given the reach of ICT in our lives, it is important for an ICT Professional to be ... Technically Strong (in order to use the Right Technology for the Relevant Problem), Ethically Grounded (to ensure that Technology is put to the Right Use), Socially Conscious (so that the technical solution takes into consideration elements of Sustainability), Business Savvy (to ensure commercial viability which is required for Social Prosperity and Funding of new Developments) (International Professional Practice Partnership, 2015).
Finally, after more than sixty years, the recommendations of Wiener, the founder of computer ethics are becoming a reality for the entire ICT international community.
Complex Systems and computer engineers
By reflecting on the complexity of the ICT stakeholders network, students realize that the traditional approach of
In this view, HCI is important for understanding the complex relationship between people and technology and how it can help computer professionals, engineers, interaction designers, information architects, etc. in their daily work. Engineering becomes "cognitive engineering". In the work of Penelope M. Sanderson, cognitive engineering is defined as the analysis, modeling, design, and evaluation of complex
Also, it is important to underline the concept of "open system", that is one that is subject to disturbances that require intervention (control) in order to continue functioning according to some criterion (cybernetics). The strong recommendation is to build "ecological information systems" that human beings can operate easily as in the natural world (Sanderson, 2003)
Slow Tech as a compass for computer engineers
The most challenging part of the methodology is the fourth and final task: to make some proposals. As PhD students they need to develop an autonomous professional capability in formulating positive proposals. This is the main reason for introducing in this part of the computer ethics course for engineers a
This can be done by taking into account, first, human limits (good ICT). ICT can be good for human beings when the systems are designed using a
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limits. The skills and competences needed are: HCI,
Second, ICT should be clean: high tech generates toxic hazards throughout its entire lifecycle (including design, production, consumption and disposal). Clean ICT considers the environmental impact (the materials involved, chip manufacturing, power consumption of data centers and devices, ICT applications,
Third, ICT should be fair: it should be taken into account the working conditions of workers throughout the entire, globally extended ICT supply chain. The low cost features of ICT are possible at the price of the increasing costs paid by workers. The entire ICT
For navigating the new territory of complex
The computer ethics course has been experimented since 2008 and its importance is demonstrated by the success among students: the number of PhD students that register for computer ethics is growing from about fifty in 2008 to more than one hundred in 2016 (the course is not mandatory).
The methodology is now well experimented and the main interesting point is the feedback from students. Since they have to prepare a report on the case analyzed based on the four steps, these are the main comments for each one:
Feedback from students
1.SCENARIO: "difficult only at first attempt"
2.STAKEHOLDERS' NETWORK "very useful"
3.ETHICAL ISSUES "quite complex but affordable"
4.ALTERNATIVE SCENARIO(s) "the most challenging one".
Based on these results, the last year the course has been reinforced in the last step of the methodology for providing the Slow Tech "compass" to students in order to facilitate their identification of possible alternative scenarios.
These are the main results of this experiment, where for each dimension of Slow Tech are listed the most important characteristics identified by students:
-Data protection / location
-Responsible research and innovation (RRI)
-Power consumption minimization
-Power sources from renewable energies
-Transparency about power sources
-Source material minimization.
-Fair working conditions
-Fair working conditions extended to all suppliers
-Compliance to Corporate Social Responsibility standards
-Location of suppliers
Teaching computer ethics to engineers is a very interesting challenge that deserves more work and research. In particular the need of "making a difference", that is, to prepare future generations of engineers to the design and development of complex
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