Allegheny Computer Science Department Puts Emphasis on Ethical Programming

Today’s computer science students will enter a tech industry that’s coming face to face with issues of bias, equity, openness, accessibility, and privacy.

So it’s crucial for those new professionals to understand the ethical implications of the tools and solutions they create, according to Oliver Bonham-Carter and Janyl Jumadinova, both computer science professors at Allegheny College.

“Technology is pervasive, touching every aspect of our lives, and we as computer scientists are the individuals who develop software that impacts the lives of many people,” Jumadinova said.

Allegheny College senior Enpu You is a computer science and music double major.
Allegheny College senior Enpu You is a computer science and music double major.

Allegheny College is one of 18 institutions, including Georgetown and Harvard universities, participating in a nationwide initiative designed to integrate ethics and social responsibility into undergraduate computer science courses. In the fall of 2020, Allegheny’s Computer Science Department launched its Ethical Computer Science Initiative, funded in part by a $144,000 grant supported by the Responsible Computer Science Challenge, a partnership of Omidyar Network, Mozilla, Schmidt Futures, and Craig Newmark Philanthropies. Allegheny has just received a second Mozilla grant of $64,800 to continue to enhance coursework in the Computer Science Department, especially introductory courses, to stress ethical issues, Bonham-Carter said.

“I believe our work is important if we want to create a shift in the tech industry where the software is being designed and developed responsibly with ethical considerations in mind from the beginning,” Jumadinova said. “Our aim is to develop future software engineers, developers, product managers, analysts, and tech pioneers who are responsible.”

The grant funding allowed the Computer Science Department to hire dozens of students to collaborate on the project in some capacity. Those positions include 17 ethics technical leaders and 38 technical leaders, teaching assistants helping students with technical problems during lab and practical sessions.

“Working with 17 other schools, including computer scientists and ethicists, throughout this grant, I learned that we all face similar challenges and resistances,” said Jumadinova. “However, being situated in a liberal arts environment, we are well equipped to do this work. Our students’ minds are open, they are eager to engage in topics of responsible computing, and they truly want to make positive contributions in technology.”

Enpu You, a senior from China, is an ethics technical team leader. Through his work in the project, You said he gradually came to realize the importance of ethical thinking in the software development process.

“Whether it is implementing algorithms myself or leading a development team, we would always seek an optimal solution rather than being satisfied with something that just ‘works.’ We always find ourselves reflecting upon the software design and implicit bias that could potentially put a certain user group at a disadvantage, and most importantly, we learn to be mindful of the decision-making trade-offs between human and automated approaches,” said You, who is a computer science and music double major.

Allegheny College senior Christian Lussier.
“Last semester I created a project that looks into biases in the assumptions made by computer algorithms and how incorrect assumptions can be harmful,” said Allegheny College senior Christian Lussier.

Another senior ethics technical leader, Christian Lussier, said he has taken the lead on open-source software projects that seek to address biases in the computing world. That experience opened his eyes to the ethical issues in the field while allowing him to enhance his technical skills.

“For instance, last semester I created a project that looks into biases in the assumptions made by computer algorithms and how incorrect assumptions can be harmful. Overall, I have learned how to be a much more conscientious computer scientist, which will undoubtedly help me when I graduate from Allegheny this spring,” said Lussier, a computer science major and economics minor from Valencia, Pennsylvania.

By engaging in the ethics-integrated courses, students begin to understand ethical issues that arise in technology so that they can develop software that works well for all, Jumadinova said. They also practice how to be responsible developers by taking into consideration future individuals who work on maintaining and further developing their software.

“This directly prepares our students to make positive contributions to our field after they leave Allegheny,” she said. “This integration intentionally makes it very clear that it is our responsibility as computer scientists to consider these issues when we are creating software and not put them off for someone else to think about.”

So what are the top three ethics issues facing computer programmers today? According to Bonham-Carter, they are bias, the misuse of technology, and privacy:

  • Bias is perhaps the most pressing, as it concerns technologies that have been inadvertently developed or programmed to make biased decisions, he said. For example, face-recognition technology is becoming increasingly popular for monitoring groups of people, and much of this technology has been trained and tested to recognize faces with less pigment, said Bonham-Carter. “There has not been enough testing of other types of faces which means that faces having more pigment may be misrecognized and misidentified accidentally by authorities,” he said. “Such an accident may likely result in innocent people who are forced to suffer potential forms of harassment.”
  • The misuse of technology results when technologies are applied in ways for which they were not intended. For instance, home security and child-monitoring camera systems having weak online security may be compromised by hackers who then have access to the system‘s cameras and microphones, said Bonham-Carter. “Such technologies may have been rushed to market without adequate testing of its built-in online security and have serious implications for those who use them,” he said.
  • Privacy in an online world has become a major issue. “If you went shopping in a physical brick-and-mortar supermarket, you would be alarmed if you noticed someone following you around the store with a pad of paper who proceeded to write down notes concerning everything you touched. However, in the online world, this kind of activity happens all the time by the use of cookies — small breadcrumbs of information that an online user may leave wherever she goes,” said Bonham-Carter. Subsequently, that information may be used in targeted-advertising campaigns, or it may be used to learn more about the person, he said. “Even if the person wishes to remain anonymous online, these cookie systems allow for data to be quickly assembled which can be used in profiling. We see that there are fewer opportunities to be a private person in an online world. More importantly, we note that the technologies for collecting online information are tending toward increasingly aggressive tactics which are unbeknown to much of the online community,” said Bonham-Carter.

Through the grant funding, the Computer Science Department was able to invite speakers and host informal virtual sessions with students to engage in conversations. In addition, some of the funding was used to purchase video and audio equipment for a production studio in Alden Hall, Bonham-Carter said, that faculty and students will use to create media content related to responsible computing.

“We also will spend a large portion of our effort in Phase Two creating digital media content, including websites, course material repositories, YouTube videos, podcasts, and live streaming events, to accompany our course materials that will be shared with a larger computing community,” Bonham-Carter said.