RES.TLL-008 | Spring 2023 | Non-Credit

Social and Ethical Responsibilities of Computing (SERC)

Instructor Insights

In the episodes of the Chalk Radio podcast embedded below, we present interviews with MIT professors and other instructors who have helped to transform computer science education as part of the Social and Ethical Responsibilities of Computing (SERC) initiative.

Instructor Interview: Prof. Catherine D’Ignazio, Prof. Jacob Andreas, and Harini Suresh

"The goal is to get students to think about data as the product of a long and complex process that is driven by human judgments and values."
— Harini Suresh

When computer science was in its infancy, programmers quickly realized that though computers are astonishingly powerful tools, the results they achieve are only as good as the data you feed into them. (This principle was quickly formalized as GIGO: “Garbage In, Garbage Out.”) What was true in the era of the UNIVAC has proved still to be true in the era of machine learning: among other well-publicized AI fiascos, chatbots that have interacted with bigots have learned to spew racist invective, while facial-recognition software trained solely on images of white people sometimes fails to recognize people of color as human. In 2021, Professor Catherine D’Ignazio of MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) and Professor Jacob Andreas and Harini Suresh of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science collaborated as part of the SERC initiative to teach computer science students to recognize how deep learning systems can replicate and magnify the biases inherent in the data sets that are used to train them.

In this episode, Prof. D’Ignazio, Prof. Andreas, and graduate student Harini Suresh describe the principles behind their revised curriculum for the course 6.864 Quantitative Methods for Natural Language Processing.


Instructor Interview: Prof. Daniel Jackson and Serena Booth

As Prof. Daniel Jackson sees it, 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, 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. Prof. Jackson and graduate teaching assistant Serena Booth have attempted to address these second and third types of failure by incorporating ethical considerations in their revised syllabus for Prof. Jackson and Prof. Arvind Satyanarayan’s course 6.170 Software Studio

In this episode, Jackson and Booth discuss concrete changes they made in their revision of 6.170, including introducing ethical concerns early in the course and sharing an ethics protocol to scaffold students’ decision-making throughout the software design process. 

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2023
Learning Resource Types
Lecture Notes
Instructor Insights
Multiple Assignment Types