Ethics from the bottom up: New program embeds ethics into technology design for undergraduates

The pervasive adoption of advanced technologies across all spheres of our lives — from business to government to our most personal and intimate relationships — means that academic disciplines like computer science play an increasingly bigger role in formative decisions about our communities and cultures.

Many University of Toronto alumni are already in leadership roles in industry. And the computer science students at U of T today could very well be the next global tech leaders, ones who will make decisions not only about technology itself, but about its wide-ranging effects on justice, healthcare, education, economies, human rights, and beyond.

To ensure the technology of the future is designed and deployed to consider its broader societal impact, a new pilot program from U of T’s Department of Computer Science and Schwartz Reisman Institute for Technology and Society (SRI) is aiming to embed ethics modules into a cross section of existing undergraduate computer science courses at U of T.

Headshots of Sheila McIlraith and Diane Horton
University of Toronto, Faculty of Arts & Science computer science Professors Sheila McIlraith (left) and Diane Horton (right) are co-leading a new initiative to embed modules on ethics into undergraduate computer science courses.

The initiative is co-led by Sheila McIlraith, a professor of computer science and a research lead at SRI, and Diane Horton, a computer science teaching-stream professor. The team also includes scholars who specialize in ethics from U of T’s Department of Philosophy.

From learning about the complex trade-off between data privacy and public benefit to making design decisions that impact marginalized communities, computer science students will be taught the skills to identify potential ethical risks in the technologies they are learning to build.

“We want to teach students how to think, not what to think,” says McIlraith. “We’re not proselytizing about ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ But we want students to identify ethical questions because, when they enter the workforce, they will be on the front lines. They’ll be the ones writing the code, developing the systems, using the data. It’s imperative that ethical considerations are part of fundamental design principles.”

Asked why this type of initiative is more urgent now than ever before, McIlraith points to the massive changes in the role technology plays in society.

“It used to be that technologists would build systems for a particular purpose or industry,” says McIlraith. “But now, technology is no longer just for individual tasks like completing tax returns or keeping track of company inventory. Technology impacts the way all of us live, work, and interact with each other. A lot of the money and investment that fuels our economy is related to technology. And emerging tech companies are often led by young people who have just come out of computer science degrees.”

When SRI was founded in 2019, McIlraith was appointed one of its inaugural research leads. She quickly approached SRI Director Gillian K. Hadfield about the need for an embedded ethics initiative in computer science, citing a similar pioneering program already underway at Harvard University. Hadfield immediately saw the alignment with SRI’s mission to explore the dynamics between technology and the human agenda — and to solve problems at the intersection of technology and public good.

McIlraith and Horton are joined on the team by Benjamin Wald, most recently a postdoctoral fellow at SRI and an alumnus of U of T’s Department of Philosophy; Maryam Majedi, postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Computer Science; and Emma McClure, PhD candidate in the Department of Philosophy.

It's critical to teach ethics in computer science,” she says, “because these students will be responsible for many important tasks in the future. 

“Embedding ethical considerations into existing courses helps students see  their relevance at the very moment they’re learning the computer science,” says Horton. “The ethics modules are associated very closely with the technical content, so when students are eventually in the workplace, we hope the two will remain very connected in their minds.”

Horton has been teaching in the department for 25 years, and has already seen firsthand how eager students are to talk about ethics, as well as the different perspectives they bring.

“One student had a very intense appreciation for the vulnerability of the homeless population,” says Horton, “and she brought that from her personal experience. Another student talked about the hospital where he works, and how private medical data is so carefully protected.”

“There has been so much curiosity from the students,” says Majedi of the initiative so far. “They ask a lot of questions and offer interesting and creative ideas. Some get so excited, and they stay long after class to talk with us.”

Majedi says her own research into data privacy has definitely highlighted a gap in curricula where ethical training for students is badly needed.

“It's critical to teach ethics in computer science,” she says, “because these students will be responsible for many important tasks in the future.”

Wald and McClure, both philosophers, have been glad to see the enthusiasm among computer science students for ethical questions.

“I think the students really want to have these critical thinking tools, because it’s clear they’ve been considering these issues already,” says McClure.

“Sometimes, a computer science student might recognize a potential ethical issue,” says Wald, “but might not know how it’s been discussed by other people, or where to find the right resources to address it. They might think, ‘How do I put the concern I have into words?’ Hopefully we can give them the tools to do that.”

The embedded ethics initiative, now in its initial pilot phase, will produce a longitudinal study to inform its future directions.

The goal? For every computer science student to encounter ethics modules at several points in  their U of T computer science program — and bring those insights to their future careers.

“Big tech companies like Apple often employ people in specialized ethics roles, but our program aims to equip people who are actually building the technologies at a company like that,” says McClure. “That way, the ethical behaviour comes from within the design of technologies. It comes from the bottom instead of being imposed from the outside by an ‘ethics specialist.’”

“Longer term, we aspire to have ethical considerations as a cornerstone of many of our tech-oriented disciplines within the university,” says McIlraith. “One of our goals is to create a winning strategy so that this pilot can transform into something broader.”

McIlraith and Horton both credit Harvard’s Barbara Grosz and Jeff Behrends for their support to the U of T team at the early stages of conception and development. Grosz is a founder and Behrends a faculty team leader in Harvard’s Embedded EthiCS program.

The core U of T team aims to engage other faculty, instructors, and researchers as it grows — in particular, computer science faculty who have already been teaching undergraduate courses in the core curriculum for years.

The beneficiaries will not only be U of T computer science students — some of the brightest in the world who have been accepted to a very competitive program — but society at large as we rely on the tools and technologies these creative and ambitious students build for our everyday use.