Technological ethics should be taught at WU

Joshua Shapiro | Contributing Writer

For emerging technology companies, there have traditionally been two paths to success: the product path and the data path. Product driven companies have a simple business model: sell as many products as possible to make the maximum amount of money. The technology company Apple, for example, generates the majority of its revenues by selling its products– including the iPhone and iMac– at high profit margins. When the customer makes a transaction with Apple and walks away with a physical device in hand, the company takes no further direct action.

But in recent years, corporations have largely ignored product-based engineering, instead deciding to build products that monetize people’s private information in exchange for free services. The motivation for these behemoths is simple: collecting and monetizing people’s data has become incredibly easy.

A basic google search yields tens of data points, each of which can be neatly packaged into an advertisement that pops on your screen, while liking one post on Facebook tips to the social media monopoly your political ideology. Companies like Google and Facebook argue that data collection is the small price consumers must pay for free access to their suite of products. But while Google Search and Instagram both cost nothing in dollars, they are flawed to the core.

By sacrificing our privacy in order to access technology, we are jeopardizing every tidbit of information about ourselves– all with the vague hope that the entities that have proved in the past to be unreliable and untrustworthy will somehow protect us.

I firmly believe that Wash. U. engineers must re-consider the viability of the data path. Right now– at this very moment– we are at risk of losing our very right to privacy. Data manipulation will only grow more malicious in the future, and the only way to protect future generations is to change the mindset of technology’s next creators.

When I look back at my experiences within the Computer Science (CS) department at Wash. U., what shakes me most is the sheer lack of acknowledgment– from both faculty and peers— of our moral responsibilities as engineers in the 21st century. Regardless of whether the university believes that principled, smart people inherently produce moral products, Wash. U. needs to start teaching its students the importance of creating products that maintain merit and value without sacrificing people’s private information. We need to start truly educating the next generation of thinkers and innovators.

A good start would be adding required ethics components to larger computer science courses. More than 500 students take Washington University’s Introduction to Computer Science class, and in my entire year of being an instructor’s assistant for the class, more time was spent on enforcing academic integrity than actual ethical integrity. By adding an hour a week of ethics in technology material to Wash. U.’s introductory Java class and first data structures course, the school would ensure that all majors and minors have at least some exposure to the ethics behind computer science at some point in their academic careers. From there, students can go on to higher-level, more advanced classes with a better understanding of their ethical duty in the field of technology. After all, the purpose of studying engineering within the context of a liberal arts university is to better understand the responsibilities we have as talented and technologically-armed, young innovators to be moral.

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