Artificial intelligence and other advances challenge tech industry to think beyond the screen.

Share story

When Michael Quinn, Ph.D., wants to introduce ethical issues to his computer science students, all he needs to do is bring in a news story. Quinn, dean of the College of Science and Engineering at Seattle University, just looks for the latest news in the vein of “a security breach in a database that results in the disclosure of information that was supposed to remain private, or a software error in a medical device that causes patients to be harmed,” he says. Fortunately or not, a relevant article is never hard to find.

Ethics may not be the first topic that comes to mind when you think of a computer science major today. In fact, at most institutions you can earn a technology or computing degree without ever setting foot in an ethics course classroom, but Roshanak Roshandel, Ph.D., chair of the Computer Science Department at Seattle University, says this needs to change.

“For the future of humanity and society, it is critical that students entering the tech industry have meaningful and adequate training in ethical implications of technology and that they are equipped to ask and answer difficult questions,” she says.

After all, computer science is about more than just coding. Increasingly, technology affects every aspect of life, especially through new applications of artificial intelligence, which can raise some tough ethical issues.

Think of self-driving cars, smart speakers, and the software and websites we use regularly that include any kind of helpful “assistant.” All of these are rife with murky questions of ethics, privacy and even safety.

And tech companies are starting to figure out the best ways to deal with the complexities that come with producing new products and types of artificial intelligence. Last year Microsoft released a book addressing several of these issues, “The Future Computed: Artificial Intelligence and Its Role in Society,” which encourages other companies, policymakers and institutions to embrace new technology along with a solid ethical grounding.

As artificial intelligence becomes a greater part of the technological world, employers are looking to colleges and universities to delve into this complicated landscape and prepare the workforce of the future. Quinn, who wrote the textbook “Ethics for the Information Age,” brings deep knowledge to his classroom. He currently sees the major ethical questions facing the field of AI resting in how new systems are designed, implemented and tested.  For example, how can a poor choice of training data result in an AI-driven system exhibiting bias against certain populations?

Gigi Davidson, 25, a computer science major getting her second bachelor’s degree, earned her first degree in psychology with an emphasis in cognitive science from UCLA. Davidson’s background in psychology drew her to the field of computer science, and specifically to artificial intelligence. Davidson says her background lends context to the question posed by Quinn. “There are known vulnerabilities in how people think — knowing about these vulnerabilities allows people to avoid common ethical pitfalls.”

Computer science students and professors are also taking on the question of transparency “so that if the system makes a bad decision, its human overseers can understand how the system came to choose that course of action,” Quinn explains.

Davidson believes computer scientists have an ethical responsibility to think about not just building AI with a final goal in mind, but to think about how those goals are achieved. “Scientists’ ethical responsibility to society is to create parameters in their code to account for every possible deviation in the way an AI achieves their goals, so the AI doesn’t lead to disaster,” she says.

Roshandel is looking to make ethics an organic part of the computer science department. “While our students already take a course on ethics, we need to develop and expand our approach so that ethical decision-making is woven through our entire curriculum,” she says. “Ethics training needs to be applicable and operationalized so that students can design and develop technology for a just and humane world.”

A recently announced gift from Microsoft will help create opportunities for Seattle University students and faculty to explore the impacts of technology on our lives. Microsoft’s $3 million gift will help fund the new Center for Science and Innovation and related academic programs designed to consider the ethical implications of artificial intelligence.

“A STEM education coupled with a liberal arts background will be a powerful combination in the future,” says Microsoft President Brad Smith. “Microsoft is a longtime supporter of Seattle University and its approach to educating the heart and mind. The future of technology will require developers to approach their work in a responsible way and the Jesuits are known for challenging students to think responsibly for themselves and their community.”

Davidson already is thinking about how she’ll carry her ethical and computer science training into the professional world once she has completed her studies. “Companies developing AI have an obligation to society not only to have a team of ethically and philosophically competent scientists, but also a team of specialized ethicists,” she says. Recent headlines about social media companies stumbling when it comes to ethical situations inspire her to want to see the tech field make some changes, especially when it comes to the specialized sector of artificial intelligence. “We’re well past the time when companies can hire naive scientists to work on problems of this scope.”

This kind of critical thinking about ethical AI is exactly what Roshandel hopes her students are getting from their education. For her, success means training all her students to think critically and ask the right questions in the professional world, dealing not just with profit, but with societal impact.

“We then can slowly move forward, fix things, and pave the path for the future generations,” she says.

Visit to learn more about Seattle University’s College of Science and Engineering.