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Why Prof. Amruth Kumar wants to make ethics ‘unavoidable’ in computer science

Tomorrow’s computer class will likely have a lot more conversation if new curricula recs are followed.
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3 min read

The last time an official set of “computer science curricula” came out, Twitter had just gone public, Google Glass headsets had adorned a few heads, and Vine was still a thing.

In 2013, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and the IEEE Computer Society (IEEE-CS) released their once-a-decade recommendations for “the knowledge and competencies students should attain for degrees in computer science and related disciplines at the undergraduate level.” Recommended study areas of the time included simulation and modeling, programming-language principles, and human–computer interaction.

The groups released its latest curricula guidelines in early 2024, and a lot has ch-AI-nged since Her hit cinemas.

As universities’ computer-science programs adjust to AI applications, large language models, and the high-performance computers supporting both, Ramapo College professor and ACM Steering Committee Co-chair Amruth Kumar wants computer science students everywhere to always confront one area of study, no matter the class: ethics.

Teaching about databases? You still want to talk about privacy and security of that data, Kumar told IT Brew. High-performance computing courses must tackle sustainability questions, he said, and computer graphics courses need to leave space to discuss ideas like how to give credit to original image creators.

In other words: Make ethics a must.

“Whether they’re writing a program, reading a program, writing documentation for a program, solving a problem, designing a solution, coming up with an app, reconfiguring an app, training AI data…you must make it unavoidable for the people who do this,” Kumar said.

In a Q&A with IT Brew, Kumar talked more about how he envisions integrating “society, professional issues, and ethics” into tomorrow’s computer science courses.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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What would you say to a student who considers themselves to be a fan of technology, but doesn’t necessarily want to engage in the deep, ethical questions that these deployments raise?

We are trying to say: That is no longer a luxury for computer science graduates; they must engage in these questions. If they are to be professionals, they cannot say, “This is not my job…” Now, you might say, “Well, one person cannot change the culture of an entire company, which may have 200 programmers,” but if every one of them is thinking about these issues, then those issues are more likely to be addressed than if there is only one chief ethics officer who is coming in after the fact and saying, “Okay, how is this product doing this or that?”

What role did ethics play in the 2013 curricula?

[In 2023’s version] we tried to have every knowledge area have a separate knowledge unit on ethics: operating systems, databases, and so on…we try to interweave ethics through our computer science and not leave it as a silo by itself. In 2013, we talked about ethics as a silo by itself.

Do you have an example of why you think the combination of ethics and technology is so important?

AI is being used for facial recognition, but it’s not very good at recognizing non-Caucasian faces. And why? Because nobody trained it on non-Caucasian faces. So, nobody paid attention to this… Are we making these products for everybody? Or are we making these products for only some people and saying it is useful for everybody.

Top insights for IT pros

From cybersecurity and big data to cloud computing, IT Brew covers the latest trends shaping business tech in our 4x weekly newsletter, virtual events with industry experts, and digital guides.