With Great Code Comes Great Responsibility: Announcing the Responsible Computer Science Challenge

October 11, 2018
Move fast and break things. Grounded in disruptive progress, this mindset led to incredible innovation — but while the tech it created had positive impacts, some of it also came with unintended consequences.

Now it is time to embrace a new mantra — one that maintains technology’s tremendous potential for positive impact but also builds robust guardrails around responsibility and accountability: “Move purposefully and fix things.” And we need to make sure this is instilled in the people who are building this technology, starting as early as their undergraduate training.

Computer science education is booming — to the tune of an incredible 74 percent rise in enrollment between 2009 and 2015. Today, many of these programs aren’t preparing students to realize the full impact of the products they are creating. When ethics courses are available, they are often elective, intermediate, upper-level, or specialized (e.g., AI or Machine Learning ethics).

We need to better embed ethical considerations from day one.

Think about it. Engineers daily make decisions about how their algorithms will operate — and, as a result, who will get a loan, health insurance, or parole. Yet when it comes to introducing ethical thinking right into the undergraduate curriculum, before computer science students graduate and go on to design and develop the tech of the future, we’re coming up short.

Treating ethical reflection and discernment as an opt-in sends the wrong message to computer science students: that ethical thinking can be an ancillary exploration or an afterthought, that it’s not part and parcel of making code in the first place.

Integrating this approach into undergraduate technical training is only one solution of many that are needed to ensure that we harness the positive potential of technology and mitigate its downsides. That’s what led us to incubate the Responsible Computer Science Challenge (#ResponsibleCS), our latest collaboration in partnership with Mozilla, Schmidt Futures, and Craig Newmark Philanthropies, to jump-start and scale promising approaches to integrating ethical thinking and social consideration into undergraduate computer science education.

“In a world where software is entwined with so much of our lives, it’s not enough to simply know what software can do,” explains computer scientist Kathy Pham, adjunct lecturer at Harvard University and Mozilla fellow leading the Challenge. “We must also know what software should and shouldn’t do, and train computer science students to think critically about how the code they create might one day be used.”

This sentiment is echoed by prominent industry leaders. Thirty-five leaders in technology and investment — including Chris Hughes, Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, Jeff Lawson and DJ Patil — have articulated the need for the Responsible Computer Science Challenge in an open letter, stating that ethics in tech education “is a critically important step in advancing the industry we care about so deeply, ensuring a healthy, thriving internet and securing a bright human future.”

Brian Leonard, CTO / Technical Cofounder of TaskRabbit, tweeted, “I signed an open letter in support of embedding ethics into undergraduate Computer Science education through the #ResponsibleCS Challenge. It’s needed now more than ever…”

There have been a number of promising new developments on this front — ranging from ethical coding exercises to embedding philosophy TAs in computer science courses to writing new case studies that highlight the challenges students will face once they have entered industry.

Our hope is that the Responsible Computer Science Challenge will not only accelerate the adoption and scaling of approaches like these, but will help us collectively empower graduating engineers to drive a culture shift in the tech industry founded on ethical thinking and future risk mitigation. Between December 2018 and July 2020, we will award up to $3.5 million in prizes to new and creative efforts to integrate ethics into technical computer science education.

The independent review and judges panel for the Responsible Computer Science Challenge were selected for their expertise in a variety of fields ranging from computer ethics to philosophy and law.

“Computer science and engineering have deep domain expertise, but when it comes to drawing on theories and methods that attend to people’s ethical rights and social needs, programs are just getting started,” said Mary L. Gray, one of the judges and senior researcher at Microsoft Research, fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, and associate professor in the School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering at Indiana University.

“An increase in ethical thinking in CS is sorely needed and I’m extremely excited to be a part of helping to make that happen,” tweeted Erica Joy Baker, a Senior Engineering Manager at Patreon.

Bobby Schnabel, professor of computer science at the University of Colorado Boulder and former president of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), the world’s largest scientific and educational computing society, continued, “It is wonderful that the Responsible Computer Science Challenge will encourage the development of curricula that create this awareness and ability in future computer scientists.”

Omidyar Network’s Tech and Society Solutions Lab, where we work, was created to help shift the industry to a more thoughtful approach, supporting a movement that enables tech to realize its full potential as a positive force in the world. You can read about our other initiatives on our website, including the Ethical Operating System (#EthicalOS), a toolkit designed in partnership with the Institute for the Future (IFTF) to facilitate better product development, faster deployment, and more impactful innovation for designers and developers — all while striving to minimize technical and reputational risks.

This means co-creating and investing in solutions at all levels of the tech ecosystem, including in undergraduate curriculum.

Our hope is that the ideas generated through the Responsible Computer Science Challenge will become normalized at all colleges and universities — especially since all the materials developed will be shared openly and widely distributed. If we can inspire students to take on the mantle of “ethical technologists” from Day 1 of their educational journey, we will have a sustained and lasting impact on our collective future.

You can learn more about the Responsible Computer Science Challenge and how to apply at ResponsibleCS.org. Join the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #ResponsibleCS.


A version of this originally appeared on Techonomy, where Paula Goldman, the global head of the Tech and Society Solutions Lab will take the stage at their upcoming conference to discuss Omidyar Network’s long-standing belief in the promise of technology to create opportunity and social good, as well as the concern about unintended consequences that can result from technological innovation.

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