In recent decades, ideas originating with Stanford students and faculty brought technologies that have disrupted industries, revolutionized business and eased communication in our daily lives. But they have also been linked to societal problems such as widening inequality, racial bias and lack of privacy.
As a way of ensuring that technological advances born at Stanford address the full range of ethical and societal implications, the Long-Range Vision launched the Ethics, Society and Technology (EST) Hub, co-led by Margaret Levi and Rob Reich, both professors of political science.
“Stanford is home to outstanding ethicists and social scientists but they haven’t been well integrated into the ways we teach about, or do research related to, technology,” said Debra Satz, the Vernon R. and Lysbeth Warren Anderson Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences (H&S). “The EST Hub will bring their insights into the conversation with scientists and engineers about such matters as how we might consider the choices we make regarding technologies that have the potential for widespread societal consequences.”
The EST Hub will help coordinate and amplify the teaching, research and activities on campus at the intersection of ethics, society and technology.
“The wider world knows Stanford for its leading role in technology innovation and disruption,” said Reich, who is also director of the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society. “This initiative is born out of the desire that Stanford also be known for advances in our understanding of the ethical and social dimensions of technology.”
Like many initiatives formed through the Long-Range Vision, the EST Hub doesn’t create a new permanent entity. Instead, it is expected to have a three to five-year lifespan, with its activities eventually finding homes among Stanford’s existing institutes, centers and programs.
“It’s about culture change in those we touch and incorporating ethics into our practices. We want to jumpstart that activity and then make sure it lasts,” said Levi, who is also the Sara Miller McCune Director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.
Ethics in the classroom
Reich helped launch a class called CS 182: Computers, Ethics and Public Policy, co-taught by Jeremy Weinstein, professor of political science, and Mehran Sahami, professor of computer science, which explores the intersection of technology, ethics and policy.
Move responsibly and think about things
“It’s the only class I know of where students have to complete technical assignments, policy papers and philosophy papers,” Reich said. He’s now exploring similar classes on topics like bioengineering and climate science. “We want to take this idea beyond computer science,” he said.
The EST Hub, in collaboration with Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (HAI) and the computer science department, has also begun working with a postdoctoral fellow on a program called Embedded EthiCS, which will embed ethics modules into core computer science courses. “We want to make it inescapable that technology majors get exposed to questions of ethics and policy,” Reich said.
In addition to the ongoing curricular work, The EST Hub recently gave out six grants for people developing classes that integrate ethics, society and technology. These include classes focused on race in STEM, the risks and opportunities digital technologies present in civil society, an online version of an existing course on ethical urban data analysis, integrating diverse cultural perspectives in ethics training for global technologies, the ethics of using digital ecosystems for training performance artists and role-playing workshops for engineering courses.
Levi and Reich said they hope these courses – and others that follow – will ensure all STEM students at Stanford encounter opportunities to consider the social and ethical implications of technology.
“We want to get to a point where we have dozens of classes in which students are seeing ethics as part of what their education is all about,” Levi said.
Ethics in STEM research
In addition to supporting ethics in STEM education, The EST Hub is hoping to inspire faculty and students to focus on ethical questions in their research and in their lives. They recently awarded grants to both students and faculty to further those goals.
Levi said she was excited about the level of enthusiasm and creativity students showed in their proposals. “They really have some ideas and energy for how to bring these practices into their lives and into the ways people are interacting with each other,” she said.
The funded student proposals include two focused on the arts. One creates a magazine focused on the intersection of society and technology and another supports a film project that explores how broader issues of power, culture and our ethical priorities influence current developments of artificial intelligence. The students also proposed a CS fellowship focused on social good and a student group that reflects on and advocates for a more thoughtful approach to the development and role of technology. They are also exploring how Stanford’s tech ecosystem has changed over the last decade, addressing the gaps that remain in student understanding of free speech across interdisciplinary fields and creating a collaboration between faculty and students dedicated to mitigating existential risks.
Funded faculty teams span the Schools of Medicine, Engineering and Humanities and Sciences. They include a project exploring whether digital tools could slow the spread of misinformation and the effects of artificial intelligence-mediated conversation. Another grant supports bioengineering fellows, and one creates an ethical review board for technology research. That board has already reviewed grants funded by HAI, and will review another round of grants in the fall. They expect to publish findings and best practices with the idea that it could inform the group’s future work at Stanford and inspire related boards at other universities.
Although the EST Hub launched prior to the novel coronavirus, the international pandemic has revealed to everyone the ways technology is intertwined with individual and social well-being. To explore those implications, The EST Hub funded rapid response research into the societal effects of technology involved in COVID-19 efforts, including research into Zoom fatigue, digital theater, crisis education and photography to chronicle the pandemic across the socioeconomic spectrum.
Levi and Reich said that by embedding ethics in STEM and technology education, and creating new opportunities for students and faculty to engage in ethics in their lives and in their research, they’ll create a culture that will endure when the EST Hub dissolves.
“The hub integrates what’s going on across the university,” Levi said. “If at the end our students, researchers and faculty practice differently in how they conduct research and lead their lives that would be a success.”