Computer science students must be taught to consider social effects

Departments can no longer be singularly tied to their mathematical and engineering foundations, focused only on what can be built, says Beth Mynatt

June 17, 2024
A row of young people on their phones, signifying social media addiction
Source: iStock/golubovy

In many ways, there has never been a better time to lead a college of computer science. At Northeastern University’s Khoury College of Computer Sciences, where I have been dean since 2022, our student body has tripled in the past decade and enrolments are still soaring, while the gender gap is shrinking. We see great enthusiasm for careers in this dynamic, challenging field.

But computer science is at a crossroads. A cursory review of daily news headlines reveals ongoing angst about the role of AI in fair decision-making, automation and job loss. And many of the best practices in our field, such as sharing open-source software and creating large-scale platforms for sharing information and news, have also enabled unintended, unfortunate outcomes.

For example, dubious actors have been enabled to piece together code and algorithms for face recognition. Coupled with the ability to scrape large amounts of data from social media platforms, these actors have sold extensive face-recognition systems to law enforcement agencies. While these systems can help identify and rescue abducted children, we now have databases filled with social media images of non-consenting children’s faces.

Such unforeseen outcomes raise questions that cut to the heart of our mission as computer science educators. Is an abundance of computer science graduates good for higher education and, more importantly, the world? Are our students pursuing high-income jobs regardless of the impact of their work? How do we adjust our curriculum to incorporate the effects of computer science in society? How do we encourage our graduates to build ethical and trustworthy computing systems?

I believe the field of computer science needs a fundamental course correction. We can no longer be singularly tied to our mathematical and engineering foundations, focused only on what can be built. We must also ask what should be built, and who needs to be part of that design and implementation process. These questions demand that computer science education and research broaden their community, not diminish it.

At Northeastern, the vast majority of our students study core programmes in computer science, data science and cybersecurity in tandem with diverse fields such as business, biology, philosophy and law, through our combined majors. And over a third of our faculty have joint appointments with other departments, including philosophy, journalism, law, psychology, health sciences, and mechanical and electrical engineering.

An interdisciplinary education will help to ensure that our graduates get beyond the “move fast and break things” concept that has often driven the tech industry over the past two decades and step up to the challenge of designing AI systems that rise above our human biases, creating life-enhancing advancements that benefit as many people as possible.

We also need to consider who is entering computer science programmes in the first place. While we have taken strides be more diverse, we are still seeing a deficit in “under-represented populations”, including women, people of colour and those who face cultural barriers to high school computer science opportunities. At Northeastern, we created a bridge master’s computer science programme, called Align, for students with no formal tech background looking to pivot to a high-tech career. Some of these students come straight from undergraduate programmes, where many students are shut out of computer science programmes because of overwhelming demand. Others look to complement their current careers in healthcare, finance and law. More than half of the students who take advantage of this “second chance” opportunity are women.

Many programmes across the US are also grappling with how to integrate ethics. At Northeastern, our approach recognises that stand-alone courses do not help students to understand technical trade-offs and methods for developing ethically informed systems, so we strive to integrate ethics across the curriculum, starting at matriculation with our “Oath for Computing”.

Modelled on the Hippocratic oath, this statement – which all of our students recite and adopt – recognises that with computing knowledge comes a great responsibility to serve society. We weave the tenets of this oath into our curriculum and position it as a North Star for all students.

As we enter the new era of transformative advancements in AI, we cannot afford to ignore this great responsibility. The stakes are simply too high.

Beth Mynatt is dean of Northeastern University’s Khoury College of Computer Sciences.


Print headline: Program a course correction

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Reader's comments (6)

At least in the UK S students are required to be taught these issues as part of their professional development. This is mandatory for a course to be accredited by the British Computer Society, However to quote an old saying "you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink". Once a student has graduated and is working, there is little you can do if the person does not follow whatever they were told. You mentioned the Hippocratic oath. In medicine professional registration is required to practice, and can be struck off if they are found to have failed to follow professional standards. Possibly this could be applies to "IT" professionals. However securing agreement from govt and industry tha tthey will only employ registered staff might take time. The other challenge is that unlike the mathematical foundations the principles you are concerned with are subjective and when there is no rigorous definition of "intelligence" let alone "AI" arguments about harm to society are going to be difficult to sustain - if/when they end up in court.
Quite correct, most if not all UK universities want BCS accreditation for their Computer Science courses, and to get that you have to teach your students ethics. I have the honour of delivering that module to our students, and find it's a "Marmite Module" - students either thoroughly enjoy batting around ideas and revel in a class that doesn't have right and wrong answers, just well-argued points of view, or they hate it and want to get back to their code as fast as their legs will carry them. They all have to not only take but actually pass this module to get their degrees, however. Ah well, must get back to marking their work...
Unfortunately, NEU and Khoury College that have supposedly "strive[d] to integrate ethics across the curriculum" have not. This is a vague unproven statement. Worse, Ms. Mynatt wrote the Oath all by herself without input from anyone (especially NOT students!) and she holds no particular accreditation in ethics. Coercing students to recite the Oath without buy-in amounts to compelled speech and should not be set forth as an example of how Universities should proceed. By contrast, the Engineering Dept. at NEU has gotten it right. The inclusion in the Society of Engineers with it's Oath is opt-in only and not forced on students at such an important time as graduation.
As the Senior Associate Dean of Academic Programs and Student Experiences for Khoury College, I championed taking Dean Mynatt’s original ideas for the oath to weave it throughout our curricular programs and experiential learning opportunities. It is a powerful guiding light that connects the many ways Northeastern students engage in computer science education, reaffirming our special obligation to safety, security, privacy, and creating equitable opportunities—responsibilities that are more critical now than ever. Learn more about our oath here:
But who wrote the Oath? And who should have? Why can't it be implemented as the Engineering college has? Where is the "ethics across the curriculum"? You have added no new info. It's just more assertions of the same.
As a co-op school, NEU (and thus Khoury College) has 100s of industry partners. What is NEU/Khoury doing to "affirm their [industry partners] special obligation to safety, security, privacy and creating equitable opportunities" with those industry partners?