Articles  |  ,   |  August 1, 2018

How to Teach Computer Ethics through Science Fiction

Article by Emanuelle Burton, Judy Goldsmith, and Nicholas Mattei.
Published in Communications of the ACM.


Computer science faculty have a responsibility to teach students to recognize both the larger ethical issues and particular responsibilities that are part and parcel of their work as technologists. This is, however, a kind of teaching for which most of us have not been trained, and that faculty and students approach with some trepidation. In this article, we explore the use of science fiction as a tool to enable those teaching artificial intelligence to engage students and practitioners about the scope and implications of current and future work in computer science. We have spent several years developing a creative approach to teaching computer ethics, through a course we call “Science Fiction and Computer Ethics.” The course has been taught five times at the University of Kentucky and two times at the University of Illinois at Chicago and has been successful with students, as evidenced by increasing and full enrollments; high teaching-evaluation numbers; positive anonymous comments from students; nominations and awards for good teaching; and invitations to speak about the course on conference panels and in talks.

Runtime 5 minutes.

Science fiction makes the key ethical questions of technology development and use more vivid and engaging and the critical resources for addressing ethical questions more intelligible. Discussing ethics in the context of fiction can make it easier for instructors to adopt an open-ended approach required for a good ethics course.