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Announcing a Competition for Ethics in Computer Science, with up to $3.5 Million in Prizes

By Mozilla Team 

October 15, 2018

The Responsible Computer Science Challenge — by Omidyar Network, Mozilla, Schmidt Futures, and Craig Newmark Philanthropies — calls on professors to integrate ethics into undergraduate computer science courses 

With great code comes great responsibility.

Today, computer scientists wield tremendous power. The code they write can be used by billions of people, and influence everything from what news stories we read, to what personal data companies collect, to who gets parole, insurance or housing loans

Software can empower democracy, heighten opportunity, and connect people continents away. But when it isn’t coupled with responsibility, the results can be drastic. In recent years, we’ve watched biased algorithms and broken recommendation engines radicalize users, promote racism, and spread misinformation.

That’s why Omidyar Network, Mozilla, Schmidt Futures, and Craig Newmark Philanthropies are launching the Responsible Computer Science Challenge: an ambitious initiative to integrate ethics and accountability into undergraduate computer science curricula and pedagogy at U.S. colleges and universities, with up to $3.5 million in prizes.

Says Kathy Pham, computer scientist and Mozilla Fellow co-leading the challenge:

“In a world where software is entwined with much of our lives, it is not enough to simply know what software can do. We must also know what software should and shouldn’t do, and train ourselves to think critically about how our code can be used. Students of computer science go on to be the next leaders and creators in the world, and must understand how code intersects with human behavior, privacy, safety, vulnerability, equality, and many other factors.”

Pham adds: “Just like how algorithms, data structures, and networking are core computer science classes, we are excited to help empower faculty to also teach ethics and responsibility as an integrated core tenet of the curriculum.”

Pham is currently a Senior Fellow and Adjunct Lecturer at Harvard University, and an alum of Google, IBM, and the United States Digital Service at the White House. She will work closely with Responsible Computer Science applicants and winners.

Says Paula Goldman, Global Lead of the Tech and Society Solutions Lab at Omidyar Network: “To ensure technology fulfills its potential as a positive force in the world, we are supporting the growth of a tech movement that is guided by the emerging mantra to move purposefully and fix things. Treating ethical reflection and discernment as an opt-in sends the wrong message to computer science students: that ethical thinking can be an ancillary exploration or an afterthought, that it’s not part and parcel of making code in the first place. Our hope is that this effort helps ensure that the next generation of tech leaders is deeply connected to the societal implications of the products they build.”

Says Craig Newmark, founder of craigslist and Craig Newmark Philanthropies: “As an engineer, when you build something, you can’t predict all of the consequences of what you’ve made; there’s always something. Nowadays, we engineers have to understand the importance and impact of new technologies. We should aspire to create products that are fair to and respectful of people of all backgrounds, products that make life better and do no harm.”

Says Thomas Kalil, Chief Innovation Officer at Schmidt Futures: “Information and communication technologies are transforming our economy, society, politics, and culture. It is critical that we equip the next generation of computer scientists with the tools to advance the responsible development of these powerful technologies – both to maximize the upside and understand and manage the risks.”

Says Mary L. Gray, a Responsible Computer Science Challenge judge: “Computer science and engineering have deep domain expertise in securing and protecting data. But when it comes to drawing on theories and methods that attend to people’s ethical rights and social needs, CS and engineering programs are just getting started. This challenge will help the disciplines of CS and engineering identify the best ways to teach the next generation of technologists what they need to know to build more socially responsible and equitable technologies for the future.”

(Gray is senior researcher at Microsoft Research; fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society; and associate professor in the School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering with affiliations in Anthropology and Gender Studies at Indiana University.)

The Responsible Computer Science Challenge is launching alongside an open letter signed by 35 industry leaders, calling for more responsibility in computer science curricula.

Responsible Computer Science Challenge details

Through the Responsible Computer Science Challenge, Omidyar Network, Mozilla, Schmidt Futures, and Craig Newmark Philanthropies are supporting the conceptualization, development, and piloting of curricula that integrate ethics with computer science. Our hope is that this coursework will not only be implemented, but also scaled to colleges and universities across the country — and beyond.

Between December 2018 and July 2020, we will award up to $3.5 million in prizes to promising proposals. The challenge is open to both individual professors or collaborative teams consisting of professors, graduate students, and teaching assistants. We’re seeking educators who are passionate about teaching not only computer science, but how it can be deployed in a responsible, positive way.

The challenge consists of two stages:

In Stage 1, we will seek concepts for deeply integrating ethics into existing undergraduate computer science courses, either through syllabi changes (e.g. including a reading or exercise on ethics in each class meeting) or teaching methodology adjustments (e.g. pulling teaching assistants from ethics departments). Stage 1 winners will receive up to $150,000 each to develop and pilot their ideas. Winners will be announced in April 2019.

In Stage 2, we will support the spread and scale of the most promising approaches developed in Stage 1. Stage 2 winners will receive up to $200,000 each and will be announced in summer 2020.

Projects will be judged by an external review committee of academics, tech industry leaders, and others, who will use evaluation criteria developed jointly by Omidyar Network and Mozilla.

Judges include Bobby Schnabel, professor of computer science at the University of Colorado Boulder and former president of ACM; Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College; Joshua Cohen, Marta Sutton Weeks Professor of Ethics in Society at Stanford University; Brenda Darden Wilkerson, president and CEO of the Anita Borg Institute; and others.

We are accepting Initial Funding Concepts for Stage 1 now through December 13, 2018. Apply.~

Pham concludes: “In the short term, we can create a new wave of engineers. In the long term, we can create a culture change in Silicon Valley and beyond — and as a result, a healthier internet.”

The Responsible Computer Science Challenge is part of Mozilla’s mission to empower the people and projects on the front lines of internet health work. Other recent awards include our WINS Challenges — which connect unconnected Americans — and the Mozilla Gigabit Community Fund.

Omidyar Network’s Tech and Society Solutions Lab draws on Omidyar Network’s long-standing belief in the promise of technology to create opportunity and social good, as well as the concern about unintended consequences that can result from technological innovation. The team aims to help technologists prevent, mitigate, and correct societal downsides of technology — and maximize positive impact.

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