A Brave New World: Tech Ethics Course Encourages Students to Mull the Implications of New Technologies

Ryo Takahashi, CEO

Ryo Takahashi (MBA ’20) speaks with Professor Michael Sandel.

Bracing for a Brave New World

Scenes of genetic selection in Gattaca (1997), the telescreen surveillance state depicted in Orwell’s 1984 (1948), and the apprehension of criminals before they commit a crime as depicted in Minority Report (2002) may seem like distant dystopian science fiction.

Until recently. The rate of progress in technology has surpassed not only our ability to regulate its uses, but also our ability to engage in meaningful discourse on how technology ought to be used.

Recent advances in human trials for gene-editing technologies such as CRISPR, the deployment of emotion recognition in surveillance systems, and innovations in predictive policing technology all suggest that we are getting progressively closer to the use of such technologies, once the work of dystopian fiction, without adequately thinking through the potential consequences.

Growing interest over the promises and perils of technology has led to Professors Douglas Melton and Michael Sandel to offer Tech Ethics, a university-wide course being taught this year at HBS’s Klarman Hall.

“This is a new version of a course that Doug Melton and I have taught on and off over the past 10 years or so,” said Professor Sandel.

“The course was originally called ‘Ethics and Biotechnology.’ The original focus of the course was on the ethics of stem cell research, genetic engineering, and the ethical implications of the genetic and biotech revolution.”

“Since then, the course has evolved and we have added topics related to AI, robots, algorithms, and big data, given the growing importance of those areas.”

“When we were debating questions of stem cell research and parents genetically creating designer babies, these were fascinating but somewhat distant from students’ personal experience. But when we talk about the ethics of the internet, or of the behaviors of technology companies, these are very immediate questions, because these are technologies that students interact with every hour of every day. This has heightened interest in the course.”

Inviting debate on ethical issues

To date, the course has focused on topics as far-ranging as gene editing and genetic enhancement, algorithmic fairness and discrimination, the role of big data and social media, and genetically altered athletes and animals. Issues such as fairness, paternalism, freedom, and agency of the individual have oftentimes been at the core of many debates.

Sandel urges students who enroll in the course to come ready to think through and explore issues, as opposed to coming in with fixed opinions.

“As democratic citizens, we have to be asking these questions today. If we don’t think through the ethical implications of new technologies, we will be at their mercy. Technology is a tool. But it’s something we can use responsibly only if we reflect on how the tools should be used.”

“How can the tools be made to advance the common good, rather than to acquire a momentum of their own that winds up undermining democratic elections, or transforming the relations of parents to children, or leading to global warming if we don’t think through our relation to nature?” asks Sandel.

A course for all students

Each week, the course draws students from Harvard’s various schools, ranging from undergraduates to students pursuing professional degrees, including from Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School.

“When I saw the course, I knew immediately that I want to take it,” said Alex Mao (MBA ’20).

“I enrolled in Tech Ethics because I want to hear what other people think. On some issues I have a firm opinion whereas on others I’m eager to hear others’ perspectives. We need to think about the implications of these technologies since it’s moving so quickly.”

“Previous versions of the course were for undergraduates,” said Sandel.

“Over time, it became clear to us that tech ethics is a subject that has become central to the various professions—of business, law, medicine, public health, government and public policy, the divinity school, etc.”

“That’s why we decided to make the course open to all students across the university,” he said.

Klarman Hall seemed like the perfect venue for such an endeavor.

“In a conversation with President Bacow about our ambition to launch a university-wide course, he strongly encouraged us to do it across the river, in this gorgeous new auditorium at HBS. He felt it would symbolize the idea of drawing together students from across the University into a shared, ‘One Harvard’ academic community.”

“I was unsure whether undergrads would travel across the river for a course. We didn’t know until the first day of class, when more than 1,000 students packed Klarman Hall,” he said.

Given what’s at stake, the long march may well be worth it.

Ryo Takahashi (MBA ’20), originally from Japan, is a management consultant and writer. Prior to Harvard Business School, he worked as a Project Manager at the World Economic Forum (WEF) and was a Senior Associate at McKinsey & Company. Prior to these roles he worked at the Economist and the Japan Times. His writing has appeared in Time magazine, the Economist, the Japan Times, and the World Economic Forum, among other outlets. He received his B.A. in Economics (with Distinction) from The University of Tokyo and was also a Rotary Scholar to the London School of Economics.