Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci: Facing ethics in a CS career

Sunday, September 15, 2019 - 2:17pm

It’s recruiting season, and that means North Campus at the University of Michigan is being flooded with companies desperate for computer science talent. This past week, Microsoft, Palantir and Uber had events on North Campus, and this week’s engineering career fair will host more than 300 companies, most of them recruiting computer science students. It’s a good time to be studying CS, which is part of why it’s now the second largest undergraduate major at the University, only behind a Bachelor's degree from the Ross School of Business. With all the resources and diplomas going to these students, what does a University of Michigan CS education prepare them for?

Increasingly, it seems, life at a big tech company.

Facebook, Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Apple were five of the top eight employers of engineering graduates from the University in 2018. The University is promoting this fact, highlighting these companies in an annual report on engineering grad employment — but is it really something we should be proud of?

Tech companies are increasingly doing work that should raise ethical concerns. Palantir builds tools that help ICE detain and deport migrants; Amazon sells facial recognition software to police departments and creates neighborhood dragnets with Ring; Facebook continually violates user privacy and stokes extremism; and Google (until recently) provided AI for the Pentagon’s drone program. As the digital revolution continues, issues like these will only grow more common and more serious. Yet, ethics are rarely found in the University’s CS curriculum, and concern for these issues seems to be rare among the student body. 

It’s time computer science students consider the morality and ethics of where they work and what they work on. A CS degree from the University provides a wealth of opportunities. Too often, though, it seems students’ career decisions are based solely on factors such as prestige, salary and benefits — with little thought or preparation for the moral quandaries presented by their work.

CS students often view a job in big tech as an indication that they’ve “made it.” It proves to people that they're smart. When comparing companies, students trade stories about free lunches, comped-parties and massive bonuses while neglecting discussions of what they worked on, its impact or the workplace culture. This environment is part of what leads to three-hour lines at Facebook and Google’s career fair tables and the prioritization of perks over impact when it comes to work. The technology we create is what should matter, not paternalistic “benefits” and false “prestige.” CS students should respect and appreciate all types of work — the current situation only helps big tech and hurts the rest of us. 

The University bears responsibility as well. It promotes big tech companies and gives little attention to other options for employment such as non-profits and startups. This puts the onus on students to find other opportunities, making it even harder to avoid the pull of big tech. As a CS student myself, I often struggled with the feeling that my only options were jobs in big tech or the financial industry. Additionally, because the CS curriculum largely avoids any discussion of ethics or the societal impact of CS work, issues such as data privacy and algorithmic bias are rarely, or never, addressed in the classroom. Neither are case studies about major ethical failures and dilemmas in the field. Students should have to confront and discuss the societal impact of the systems they create, not just build projects in a vacuum.

For students aware of the responsibilities that come with their power as computer scientists, working in big tech may even be the right choice. With the potential to affect millions or billions of people with their code and the shortage of CS talent, there is little precedent for the power that computer scientists have today. Because of this, collective action by computer scientists can have a substantial impact on the places they work, and by extension, the world. In the past year we’ve seen Google employees instigate changes to sexual harassment policies, end the company’s Pentagon contract and halt the development of a censored search engine for China. Enlightened students could work from the inside on many of the hard problems facing these companies, encouraging reform and helping navigate tech to a more sustainable place. Sending engineers to big tech with little awareness of the implications of their work ignores the realities of today’s world and misses an opportunity for meaningful change.

The culture of apathy among CS students must come to an end. The technology we create and companies we work for have too much of an impact for us to ignore our moral and ethical responsibilities. These responsibilities should be an integral part of a CS education. Individual classes should discuss ethical considerations and case studies related to their topic, and instead of a humanities requirement that often serves as a blow-off class, the University should institute a dedicated technology and society requirement. These changes would be a valuable and overdue update to the CS curriculum and follow in the footsteps of other universities. Additionally, the University should do more to promote opportunities outside of big tech. The startup career fair is a good start, but we need more emphasis and options. As a University and as individuals, we have a responsibility to consider our impact on the world. It’s time to live up to the stated objectives of our CS program and prepare graduates to “recognize the implications of their work” and “contribute substantively, as leaders, to science, technology, and society.”

Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci can be reached at chandrn@umich.edu.