Ethical Challenges in STEM: Weighing "Can We?" Against "Should We?"

Ethical Challenges in STEM: Weighing "Can We?" Against "Should We?"

An important discussion led by SCU

Consider this scenario, posed by Tesla Motors and SpaceX founder Elon Musk: Someone directs an artificial intelligence to eliminate spam email messages, only to have it determine that, because humans create spam, all humans should be eliminated. Is this a mistake? Or is AI merely doing its job very well? Brian Green, assistant director of campus ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, cites this as an example in which ethical foresight is needed to anticipate and avoid unintended consequences.

With any given technology, how does one weigh the present riskbenefit ratio against the possibilities of a much worse risk-benefit ratio in the future? Are there any mechanisms to decrease risk? What kind of people would take the risks involved, and are those the kind of people we aspire to be? These are among the questions that should deeply engage everyone involved in innovation.

“Fortunately,” says Green, “SCU is one of the best universities in the world for applied ethics.” Alongside Santa Clara’s pioneering STEM initiative comes the responsibility to develop skills of ethical discernment in students, and the University excels in cultivating a future-oriented, humane mindset that can evaluate and direct bold advances in science, technology, and engineering.

“SCU is one of the best universities in the world for applied ethics.”

The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics provides grants for further research into ethical decision-making, including a recent project by two SCU professors, Hisham Said in civil engineering and Katerina Bezrukova in psychology. They investigated how group dynamics can affect the ethical decision-making of engineering teams.

“We confronted more than 20 engineering teams with a series of ethical dilemmas,” says Bezrukova, “such as whether to build a toll road through a homeless shelter to save money or re-route the road—to determine how specific combinations of students respond.” “These kinds of decisions impact many different stakeholders,” says Said, “and some of the impacts are particularly crucial—especially to those in need with little or no power. The implications for social justice are profound.”

The implications of such research for education at Santa Clara are also far-reaching. According to Bezrukova and Said, they and other faculty members “integrate research findings as best practices back into the curriculum to promote awareness, make engineering classes more impactful, and build the ethical discernment skills of future decision makers.”

Brian Green is an adjunct lecturer in bioengineering in the School of Engineering and the assistant director of campus ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

Hisham Said is an assistant professor of construction egineering in SCU's Department of Civil Engineering.

Katerina Bezrukova is an assistant professor in SCU's Department of Psychology.