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Are ­niversities Training Socially Minded Programmers?

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Stanford students and alumni

Students and alumni discuss CS+Social Good class projects with Stanford faculty.

Credit: JR Cabansag

Vicki Niu arrived at her freshman orientation at Stanford, in 2014, with dreams of changing the world with technology. But even as a freshman Niu took issue with an engineering culture that she saw as shallow. "I saw my really bright peers starting these new social networks and anonymous question-asking apps," she says. "And I just didn't understand how smart people were working on problems that seemed so inconsequential to me."  So, in the spring of her freshman year, she and three classmates launched CS + Social Good, Stanford's first student group focused on the social impact of computer science.

Niu was ahead of the times. Stanford and other top engineering universities have offered courses on tech ethics for decades. But now, courses that explore the ethical implications of emerging technologies are cropping up across the country. This past semester, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology offered a joint course on artificial-intelligence ethics, and last fall Cornell University introduced a course in which students learned about the ethical challenges in the field of data science. Stanford professors are developing a new course about computer science, ethics, and public policy for the coming academic year.

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