CS Department must make ethics central to curriculum

By Tobias Straus, Assistant Editor

Lane boasts one of the top high school computer science, or “CS” departments in the state, if not the country. Its variety of classes and its unique access to state-of-the-art resources allow students the ability to thrive in the hyper-competitive world of technology. But during a time of increasing scrutiny of the industry, Lane’s CS department, which acts as a model for CS departments world-wide, should be given an examination as well.

Although many classes feature discussion of CS ethics, the broader tech world’s increasingly controversial ethical disasters force us to recognize the deficiencies in ethical CS teaching. While ethics and morals are occasionally discussed, these considerations need to be taught alongside each new CS skill.

Lane’s CS department constantly features new classes, new materials and new projects, similar to big tech’s culture of fast-paced innovation, exciting new products and intriguing new designs. 

CS classes that require ethical consideration are being created at Lane regularly. In the past two years, classes dealing with artificial intelligence and cyber security have been implemented. 

Mr. Berg, who teaches Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, includes class discussions surrounding ethics as part of the curriculum. Topics include surveillance, algorithm accuracy, bias and other moral questions brought about as a result of new technology. 

It is necessary to pair ethical teaching with artificial intelligence, Berg said. “It’s part of ethics to make people aware of what they’re doing and what they’re giving off.”

Ethics is also a topic of discussion in Exploring Computer Science, Berg said. 

ECS is the first computer science class most students take, and an early reckoning with the responsibility of the powers granted through code is the greatest sign that Lane is leading the transition to a more ethical tech workforce. 

If CS students begin their exploration with ethics at the introduction of their computer science education — and continue it throughout — dilemmas of technology violating our morals are more likely to be averted. 

Next year, a new class, Civil Action Through Computer Science will be taught for the first time. 

According to the course description, “The course will emphasize critical questions for society such as ‘Who is the data relevant to?’ and ‘How will people and their communities be affected?’”

The class will examine the malicious potential of data. 

“I don’t think we can avoid it, really,” said Mr. Stone, who will be teaching the course next year. “Just because it’s a computer, doesn’t mean that it’s perfectly scientific. It’s still a construct of humans, and their implicit biases are going to be passed on.”

The creation of this class and the questions it asks confirms that conversations on the need for ethics are being had by those who possess the power to make such changes.

There is, however, room to grow. Not every CS student will be taking Civil Action Through Computer Science, so not every CS student will be challenged with these questions. 

In other classes, for example, ethics is discussed less regularly. 

“Other than AI, most of my classes were just sort of learning the fundamentals, how to do things, ” said Dylan Pauel, Div. 051, who has taken seven computer science courses over his six years at Lane.

According to Berg, the frequency of ethics discussions in Lane’s Intro to AI class has declined since the class was first taught. 

“Ethics is always a thing that we want to talk about, but then it’s the first thing we push off to the side,” Berg said. 

It is essential that ethics is never a secondary topic. Ethics must be at the forefront of each new class, each new topic, each new unit, and each new lesson. 

A failure to engrain ethics into the fabric of all CS education, both new classes and old, would invite comparison to Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s infamous philosophy of “move fast and break things.” 

Zuckerberg’s obvious ethical failures as a result of that mantra, including the disruption of the United States’ democracy, failure to prevent the spread of hate speech that led to violence in Myanmar and dubious uses of data collection, are signs of a deficiency in a tech workforce and leadership educated in ethics. 

Many Big Tech founders like Zuckerberg created their world-changing product as teens fiddling around with their computers, negligent of any moral obligation to consider negative ramifications of their code. 

With the realization that society has not properly educated those wielding technology’s power in ethics, the responsibility to educate then falls on the K-12 system.

Lane’s CS program, a model for schools and school systems across the world, must take the lead in implementing ethics education. 

Ethics is a necessary point of discussion in every computer science class, topic and skill.