How might software engineers use an ethics protocol to make more mindful decisions about the products they design? This episode explores this question, and more.



In the previous episode we learned about a project undertaken as part of the Social and Ethical Responsibilities of Computing (SERC) initiative at MIT’s Schwartzman College of Computing. In this episode we hear about another SERC project, from Prof. Daniel Jackson and graduate teaching assistant Serena Booth, who have partnered to incorporate ethical considerations in Prof. Jackson and Prof. Arvind Satyanarayan’s course 6.170 Software Studio. Jackson and Booth explain that software can fail its users in three ways:

First, it can simply work badly, failing to meet the purpose it was intended for. Second, it may do what the user wants it to, while simultaneously accomplishing some insidious purpose that the user is unaware of. Third, as Prof. Jackson puts it, it may “contribute to a computational environment that has subtly pernicious effects” on the individual or on society—effects unintended not only by the user but also by the software designer. In their revised syllabus for 6.170, Jackson and Booth attempt to address these second and third types of failure by introducing ethical concerns early in the course and by sharing an ethics protocol to scaffold students’ decision-making throughout the software design process.

Relevant Resources:

MIT OpenCourseWare

The OCW Educator Portal 

Share your teaching insights

Social and Ethical Responsibilities of Computing (SERC) resource on OpenCourseWare

6.170 Software Studio ethics assignments

SERC website

Professor Jackson’s faculty page

Serena Booth’s personal website

Music in this episode by Blue Dot Sessions

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Sarah Hansen, host and producer

Brett Paci, producer

Dave Lishansky, producer

Show notes by Peter Chipman