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In Class, Some Colleges Overlook Technology's Dark Side

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crowd of people using a crosswalk in Osaka, Japan

Students should be exposed to the ethical and societal issues associated with surveillance and other computing technologies, experts say.

Credit: Getty Images

Many colleges have embedded ethics into technology curricula to help students in dozens of tech-focused certificate and degree programs think about human impacts. But many students and academics say such offerings are optional, separate from the "real" work of computing, or simply nonexistent.

"In most computer science departments, there's zero mandatory classes in anything having to do with society — whether ethics or social impact," says ACM Turing Award recipient Yoshua Bengio, scientific director of the Mila-Quebec AI Institute and professor of computer science at the University of Montreal. "That's a big problem, because computer scientists are becoming a major force in shaping the world and shaping society."

Despite growing calls for human-centered computing, the global status quo on university curricula is challenging to discern.

A 2019 survey of machine learning courses at U.S. universities showed that a majority did not include ethics on the syllabus, and those courses that did include such content were taught as electives and offered as stand-alone courses. Computing's impact on society should be taught alongside the subject matter, many argue, especially as technology is not neutral.

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