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Vakil: Equity is More Than Inclusion

March 21, 2019

artificial intelligenceComputer science educators should think more deeply about the ethical, political, and social justice consequences of their work, Northwestern University’s Sepehr Vakil wrote in a commentary published in the March issue of the magazine Communications of the Association for Computer Machinery.

Vakil, assistant professor of learning sciences in the School of Education and Social Policy, argues that most discussions related to equity in computer science education focus on inclusivity, particularly as it relates to underrepresented students of color.

What is often missing, however, is an examination of the far-reaching effects that new technologies have on historically marginalized communities, Vakil wrote in “It’s About Power,” which he co-authored with Jennifer Higgs, assistant professor in the University of California at Davis’s School of Education.

“We must fundamentally rethink who computing education is for,” the authors wrote.

The dynamics of power and ethics play a central role in computer science equity and education because of the complicated ways technology and society interact and impact people’s lives, argue Vakil and Higgs.

For instance, many key issues are often ignored, including how machine learning is changing law enforcement practice in communities of color, the ways automation technologies are reshaping welfare eligibility or how commercial search engines reinforce racist and sexist biases.

By focusing on the influence of power, students would have a chance to explore how networks -- such as the Internet or surveillance systems -- intersect with social and political systems, including racism, militarism and the U.S. immigration system.

Students who are learning about the ways racial bias shapes artificial intelligence algorithms, for example, also need to understand systems of visual cognition and of race and hierarchy, Vakil and Higgs wrote.

“These are fraught intersections, where ethical dilemmas arise and thrive; where technology and society collide to simultaneously create challenges and opportunities for education and social action,” they wrote.

Bridges linking computer science to the humanities and social sciences must be built to better incorporate ethics and politics into computing, the authors argue. Several universities with highly ranked computer science programs, including Northwestern -- which offers a joint doctoral program in computer science and learning sciences -- have already launched innovative cross-disciplinary programs.

Yet, in middle and secondary CS education contexts, Vakil and Higgs argue that “ethical and political dimensions of computing tend to be sidelined.”   

“We are in a really exciting moment where the social and political implications of technology are being widely discussed and debated,” said Vakil, who recently received the prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation, the most prestigious honor for junior faculty members.

“From recent statements by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez underscoring racial bias in artificial intelligence to engineers at Google and Microsoft protesting their company’s entanglements with the military and ICE, there is a powerful discourse emerging at the intersections of ethics, culture, race, and technology.”

Ultimately, the authors argue for two changes in the current approach to ethics and equity in K-16 computing education:

  • Center power in discussions of ethics in computing, which means consider how computing systems intersect with structures of inequality and hierarchy in society.
  •  Work to make sure all students, not just those on computer science or engineering pathways, can understand, analyze, critique, and reimagine the technologies that shape everyday lives.

Robust understandings of power, ethics, equity, technologies, and society are key for the design of future tools and artifacts rooted in deep notions of the public good and social welfare,” Vakil and Higgs wrote.