The fourteen Grand Challenges presented by the National Academy of Engineers (NAE) fail to involve ethics as a part of the solution to these issues. Traditionally, engineers have kept their work separate from its societal implications. Engineers and their non-technical counterparts have an obligation to view all technical solutions under the moral lens of ethicists and futurists. Going forward, engineers must be aware of their limits and work with experts outside of their fields to develop solutions that will be cognizant of society as a whole.
In response to the list of problems outlined in Grand Challenges by the National Academy of Engineers (NAE), Erin Cech criticizes the tendency for engineers to engage in bracketing, treating the solutions they build as completely separate from their implications for society. I agree with Cech’s position on bracketing to the extent that engineers should not view the technical and social aspects of their work separately because of the inherent connection between the solution and the outcome. As these factors are inextricably linked, the obligation shouldn’t be placed solely on the engineers to provide this ethical analysis of the implications of their work. While engineers do much of the legwork creating a solution to a problem, the manner in which their work is used isn’t completely in their control. Additionally, the frameworks necessary to assess the potential positive and negative outcomes of their work are not part of the traditional engineering skillset. This skillset is central to the work of both tech ethicists, people who examine current technology’s implications, and futurists, people who predict how innovation will shape human behavior. The delineation of work between those who create a solution and those who examine it is not uncommon at all. Auditors come in to assess the quality of businesses’ financial, labor, and social practices. Creating auditor-esque roles in the context of technological development is certainly not outside of the realm of possibility.
While working cross-functionally leads to better solutions for all stakeholders, it’s important to recognize that there are problems that can only be solved by engineers and there are others that can only be solved by non-technical individuals. This requires a mindset that advocates for the “separation of the technical and the social” . In this context, some form of bracketing is necessary for the ethical development of technology, as it creates a system that is not solely dependent on one stakeholder to make the “right” decisions. Bracketing also allows for the independent development of ideas, creating out-of-the-box solutions that work in silos and figuring out how they fit into the grand scheme of things later. The irony in this situation is that to reduce the harmful impacts of bracketing requires bracketing itself. To remove the walls that engineers have placed around their discipline, society must take collective action. To do this, spaces must be created for ethicists and futurists in engineering that distribute this obligation among these four stakeholder groups:
- Educational institutions
- Companies that use engineering
- Lawmakers and our electoral process
While Cech certainly does advocate for engineers to take a more active role in making their work more accessible to the rest of society, non-engineers can play a role in dismantling the barriers between the technical and the non-technical. Non-engineers should actively take steps to connect with engineers at a level closer to their technical default. As society works to remove forms of bracketing in engineering, each stakeholder – technical or non-technical – has a duty to create more spaces for the discussion of ethics in engineering. While the following critique of bracketing is valid and captures how engineers perceive their work as separate from the rest of society, a certain degree of bracketing is beneficial to the development of ethical technologies as it enables specialization and diffuses the responsibility of the issue to various stakeholders.
How we train future generations of engineers undoubtedly impacts their perception of the field and the way they approach their work. One solution is for educational institutions to place greater emphasis on the role of engineering in society, such as through the inclusion of courses that address this topic in their curricula. When adequately taught these subjects, perhaps engineers will begin to think more thoroughly about how their work impacts society at large. The University of Southern California’s (USC) Viterbi School of Engineering, for example, “is comprised of eight academic departments and several programs serving approximately 2,700 undergraduate and 5,900 graduate students” . However, despite this relatively large student body and breadth of programs, there are only two courses that provide spaces for the discussion of ethics in engineering: ENGR/PHIL 265 “Ethics and Technology” and the engineering sections of WRIT 340. In another example, the Grainger School of Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) has a student body of about 8500 undergraduate and graduate students. Similarly to USC’s Viterbi School, the Grainger School only offers two courses that speak about the role of engineering in society: Introduction to Electronics (ECE 110) and Ethics and Engineering (ECE 316) .
However, to incentivize educational institutions to change, regulatory agencies may have to place more emphasis on engineering ethics in their assessment criteria for these colleges and universities. Examining the accreditation requirements put forward by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) provides a better idea of how engineering schools are regularly assessed. While there are quotas in place for the number of credit hours allocated to technical engineering topics such as college-level mathematics, basic sciences, engineering and computer sciences, and “utilizing modern engineering tools,” there isn’t any specific requirement set for the ethical principles of engineering . The brief mention of ethics from ABET requires engineers who graduate from ABET-accredited institutions to have the “ability to recognize ethical and professional responsibilities in engineering situations and make informed judgments, which must consider the impact of engineering solutions in global, economic, environmental, and societal contexts” . While this certainly is an inclusion of ethics principles in the accreditation methodology, there are no procedures to objectively assess the inclusion of ethics in an engineering curriculum. If schools aren’t fulfilling their responsibilities in educating engineering students about the implications of their work, future generations of engineering professionals will lack a certain skepticism towards their field, potentially failing to stop and ask why they’re building what they’re building.
How can we expect engineers to contextualize their work in terms of broader society if they are only superficially introduced to this relationship in the first place? While the NSPE or other codes of ethics for engineers may be covered in certain courses, they are treated as a bureaucratic inclusion in the curriculum, a roadblock that holds little weight in the class. The notion of engineers holding “paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public” and issuing “public statements only in an objective and truthful manner” are merely modules in courses that prioritize the technical aspects of engineering . For example, in the Introduction to Computational Thinking and Data Science (DSCI 459) class at USC Viterbi, only 1 out of the 30 lectures goes over privacy and ethics in data science, discussing topics like “fair information practices, reproducibility, and the societal value of data” .
Companies That Use Engineering
While universities play a pivotal role in the removal of bracketing from the field of engineering, they often adjust their course content based on the demand for a particular skill set or role in the job market. Therefore, it is the responsibility of companies to create designated spaces for ethicists and futurists to act as rail guards for the solutions engineers create. By establishing a demand for these “ethical technologists,” companies with engineers could indirectly influence other stakeholders in the technical world. The professional backgrounds of ethicists interviewed in the popular Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma” show that most of the dissenters in Silicon Valley start out as engineers, product managers, and product designers – people directly involved in the creation of the product . Tristan Harris, for example, despite having a defined role as a Google Design Ethicist, started out as a software engineer at Apple and a product manager at Google . Aza Raskin, despite his claims that “advertisers are the customers, we’re the thing being sold,” still developed the infinite scroll that hypnotizes Instagram users and contributes to the “stickiness” of the platform . While it is possible to carve out a role in ethics in the tech industry through an initial stint in product development and an eventual transition to a Trust & Safety team, companies must do a better job of providing paths to ethics careers that do not require a lateral transfer.
Once these spaces are established, it is crucial that these organizations foster a culture that is accepting of these new ethicists, ensuring that they are not viewed as bureaucratic roadblocks or a hindrance to progress. Companies must actively combat technological determinism – the notion that any progress is good progress. This starts top-down, with culture changes that accept more reflection about the implications of the work. Perhaps change can also happen structurally; instead of having a designated ethics department, ethicists and futurists can be integrated into the fabric of each team in a similar way that product managers, engineers, and designers currently are.
Lawmakers and Our Electoral Process
Big tech companies play an important role in this process, but perhaps the regulation of these companies by lawmakers is even more crucial. The cultural landmarks that act as a symbol for the relationship between lawmakers and technologists have been Senate hearings that bring tech executives to explain the ethical implications of their products. These hearings, frequently shared on social media due to their meme-worthy and funny content, have demonstrated these lawmakers’ lack of understanding of the products of the companies they’re trying to regulate. A short audio clip of Senator Richard Blumenthal trying to have Facebook’s Head of Global Safety Antigone Davis “commit to ending finsta” spread all over Twitter on September 30, 2021 . Davis had to explain to the Senator that the term “finsta” refers to a fake Instagram account that many Instagram users create to post content specifically geared to a smaller subset of their followers, not a specific functionality that is created by Facebook for its users. There have been politicians who have some degree of knowledge about what goes on behind the engineering curtain, such as Representative Ro Khanna, who calls for stronger privacy rights in Silicon Valley, and Senator Richard Burr, who interrogates tech companies about Russian interference. However, these individuals are a minority in the political arena . Oversaturated by politicians like Senator Pat Roberts, Orrin Hatch, and Lindsey Graham, who have somewhat publicly championed their inability to use applications like email, the political arena has been slow to embrace technology and tends to celebrate this “digital dinosaurdom” . This lack of understanding from lawmakers demonstrates the divide between what is actually going on in these tech companies and the public understanding of their inner workings.
While this gap in understanding may be partly due to the lack of transparency from these tech companies, a significant contributor to this discrepancy is also the failure of current lawmakers make a genuine effort to understand the mechanisms that they’re aiming to regulate. Perhaps the legacy-driven, slow-moving, and traditional nature of our political system isn’t well-suited to interact with the rapidly evolving landscape of engineering. In order to frame objectives in a way that aligns the incentives of both society and tech companies to develop solutions ethically, it’s imperative that our policymakers demonstrate a fundamental understanding of technology. The solution here could be cultural change that expands what is deemed the traditional political skill set and places more emphasis on technical competencies in elected officials. Recently, there have been reassuring signs that politicians are becoming more knowledgeable about the ins-and-outs of the way these corporations operate. The recent Haugen hearings demonstrated that Senators such as Mark Warner, Mazie Hirono and Amy Klobuchar are more familiar with the way algorithms choose to display content to users on apps like Facebook . The hearings led to the creation of the Justice Against Malicious Algorithms Act of 2021, the SAFE TECH Act, the Civil Rights Modernization Act of 2021 and the Protecting Americans from Dangerous Algorithms Act that work to amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act . These four bills push for the accountability of large tech corporations when a platform “knowingly or recklessly recommends harmful content using algorithms” . Ultimately, this will diminish the harmful effects of bracketing by creating policies that protect consumers from companies who would use technology in a potentially harmful way. It will also encourage people to interact with the products that engineers create in a way that doesn’t compromise their safety and privacy.
The Role Engineers Should Play
While the responsibility of preventing bracketing in engineering shouldn’t be placed exclusively on the engineers themselves, there still is an obligation for them to play their part in this entire process. To be good citizen engineers, those in the field must “be creative about minimizing the negative impacts” of their products and look at management-driven initiatives with a critical eye . Efforts to address this problem from educational institutions, companies, and lawmakers will go an extremely long way, but engineers hold the power in this system due to the critical nature of their roles; without them, no work is done. They have an obligation to actively question technological and financial decisions and design in a way that considers the rest of society. Additionally, a lot of the responsibilities placed on the non-technical stakeholders depend on the participation of engineers. Educational institutions need engineers to help design curriculum that gives insight into relevant ethical issues that pertain to modern technology and its applications. Companies need engineers to foster a welcoming environment for tech ethicists by responding positively to their insights and taking their input seriously. Finally, lawmakers need greater transparency from engineers to give insight into how their solutions work.
After all, it’s in the engineers’ best interests to break down these walls because they “don’t always have the time [they’d] like to implement [their] best ideas, or have access to the ideal tools or materials” due to the “technological limitations, business requirements, and budget realities of the real world” . Removing the barriers between engineers and society isn’t just beneficial for the outside, non-technical world; it’s also beneficial for engineers who want to maximize the feasibility of the solutions they develop.
The Benefits of Functional Bracketing
The notion that engineers need to collaborate with educational institutions, tech companies, and lawmakers is – in itself – a form of bracketing, as it recognizes the expertise of each stakeholder and allows each one to independently develop solutions that create more spaces for ethical discussions in engineering. Bracketing is certainly not the same thing as specialization, but I would argue that in order to specialize, some form of functional bracketing is necessary. Initial prototypes and minimum viable products (MVPs) are not often created with their consequences in mind. For a solution to work, functionality should be the first priority; only then should there be considerations about how that solution will interact outside of the silo in which it operates. Taking a step back to acknowledge the impact of one’s work on others is extremely important, but there are moments in the development process where this should be a secondary consideration. While bracketing certainly has its drawbacks, it – to some extent – benefits the productivity of a team by enabling a clear delineation of the responsibilities of team members and creating opportunities for specialization. Engineers shouldn’t be expected to possess all the technical, philosophical, and social know-how necessary to be a perfect ethical technologist. Being able to delegate specific tasks to team members who are best suited to complete them is also a basic principle of working effectively in teams. According to Harvard Business School, one of the key principles of proper management is the ability to “play to your employees’ strengths and goals” as “there’s likely someone on your team with the specific skill set needed to achieve the desired result” . If everyone is a generalist, there is no go-to person for a particular task, which can often lead to a lower quality of work and delays in project completion due to a lack of clarity in assignments.
Additionally, engineering roles and non-technical roles frankly require vastly different skill sets, and the “same behaviors [that] helped [engineers] rise through the ranks” earlier on in their careers may hurt them if they take on the responsibility of leading a team . According to executive coach Nathalie Salles, there is often a tendency for leaders with an engineering background to ignore people problems and try to focus on “real work” – somewhat devaluing legitimate, non-technical issues . US News indicates that “among the top 100 CEOs in the Fortune 500, roughly a third holds a master’s in business administration” with no prior study in engineering . This points to the tendency for large successful companies – whose products and services likely intersect with engineering – to be run by people that come from a non-engineering background.
While these points that speak towards the benefits of bracketing are certainly valid, they somewhat miss the main argument; Cech doesn’t advocate for engineers to be one-stop shops for all things ethical technology. She simply encourages them to create space for the inclusion of individuals with non-engineering skill sets in technical fields, as “only by recognizing and being comfortable with the limits of their expertise can engineers actually help the people and the planet thrive, not just some people, on some parts of the planet” . This undeniably comes with an awareness of engineers’ strengths and weaknesses, as well as the humility to understand situations where they need help from others. In tackling the issue of bracketing, individuals whose work intersects with the field of engineering – technical or non-technical – should be cognizant of the roles they play and understand how their functions should interact with other components of the machine.
By Charles Nicholas Liu, Viterbi School of Engineering, University of Southern California
About the Author
At the time of writing this paper, Charles was a senior studying business, data, and design. He worked in data and business development at a USC-founded nonprofit that aimed to change the way humanitarian aid is distributed to beneficiaries. After graduation, he plans to pursue a career in technology consulting for tech, media, and telecom clients.
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