News  |    |  July 15, 2021

Why we need engineers who study ethics as much as maths

News article by S. Travis Waller, Kourosh Kayvani, Lucy Marshall and Robert F. Care. Published on The Conversation website.


The recent apartment building collapse in Miami, Florida, is a tragic reminder of the huge impacts engineering can have on our lives. Disasters such as this force engineers to reflect on their practice and perhaps fundamentally change their approach. Specifically, we should give much greater weight to ethics when training engineers.

Engineers work in a vast range of fields that pose ethical concerns. These include artificial intelligence, data privacy, building construction, public health, and activity on shared environments (including Indigenous communities). The decisions engineers make, if not fully thought through, can have unintended consequences – including building failures and climate change.

Engineers have ethical obligations (such as Engineers Australia’s code of ethics) that they must follow. However, as identified at UNSW, the complexity of emerging social concerns creates a need for engineers’ education to equip them with much deeper ethical skill sets.

Engineering is seen as a trusted and ethical profession. In a 2019 Gallup poll, 66% rated the honesty and ethical standards of engineers as high/very high, on a par with medical doctors (65%). However, ethics as a body of knowledge is massive. There are nearly as many academic papers on ethics as mathematics, and clearly more than on artificial intelligence.

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