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Techies push for ethics in computer science programs

Photo of Paula Goldman, who's the global lead for Omidyar Network’s Tech and Society Solutions Lab
Paula Goldman, global lead for Omidyar Network’s Tech and Society Solutions Lab. Photo: Omidyar Network

A new initiative, backed by the foundations of Pierre Omidyar, Eric Schmidt, Craig Newmark and Mozilla, aims to convince the nation's computer science departments to spend more time teaching the ethics of the profession alongside the basics of coding.

Why it matters: Computers are increasingly tied to every aspect of modern life, placing cameras in our bedroom, deciding who gets credit, and recording our every digital footprint. It's time for those who program computers to fully understand the implications of their work, according to the backers of the initiative.

Details: In addition to those funding the project, the Responsible Computer Science Challenge effort also has the backing of a ton of prominent techies, including Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake, Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger, Lyft president John Zimmer and former U.S. chief data scientist DJ Patil.

  • It aims to award $3.5 million over the next year and a half to help spur new ideas of how to integrate ethics into computer science curricula.

Background: Ethics is often treated as a secondary issue, if addressed at all, in computer science classes, says Paula Goldman, global lead for Omidyar Network’s Tech and Society Solutions Lab.

  • "It’s an elective," Goldman said, "It’s not seen as core. It's seen as someone else's problem."

The bottom line: Half the technical talent in big Silicon Valley companies is drawn from the top 20 computer science departments in the U.S. That's a problem in some ways. But, in this case, it makes it easier for a project like this to make a quick impact.