STORY: Blending Ethics and Engineering in “AI and Society”

December 7, 2023

Team-taught humanities course at Olin College teaches students to think about the impact of artificial intelligence in their work.

To provide a holistic education about engineering and its impact on the world, Olin College encourages students to spend time exploring non-STEM disciplines through AHS courses, short for Arts Humanities and Social Sciences. One such course is “Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Society,” which introduces students to the ethical implications of AI in engineering. 

Co-taught by Victoria Dean, assistant professor of computer science; Caitrin Lynch, professor of anthropology; and Paul Ruvolo, associate professor of computer science, “AI and Society” leverages the diverse backgrounds of its faculty to help students consider multiple perspectives.

“We wanted the course to be really transdisciplinary, so it’s exciting to have such a diverse teaching team with different viewpoints on and experiences with AI,” says Dean, who recently completed her PhD in machine learning and robotics before coming to Olin. “Often, this kind of course would be strictly about how AI can cause harm, but with a co-taught approach, we’re able to give students a more nuanced outlook.”

Group image of AI + Society course

Group image of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Society students, faculty, and guest speakers, Divya Shanmugam, PhD student, MIT (back row, left), and Patrick Emedom-Nnamdi, Blavatnik fellow, Harvard University (back row, right).

“One of the main reasons I took this class is that when we graduate and enter the workforce, no matter what we do AI will most likely be integrated pretty closely into our jobs,” says Sucheta Sunder ’26. “To get a better understanding of how to work with AI, I think it’s important to be able to critically think about both the positives and the negatives of using it.”

Students engage in discussions around different topics each week, from examining bias in large language models like ChatGPT, to drawing parallels between perspectives on AI today and the 19th-century Luddite movement of English textile workers who opposed the use of cost-saving machinery. They also heard from a panel of researchers working on healthcare and climate solutions who discussed the benefits of AI in their fields, such as using machine learning to identify inequities in the healthcare system or improve renewable energy storage.

“We took a trip to Boston Dynamics AI Institute to get different perspectives on how each person considers and measures ethics in their work and feels a personal responsibility to do so,” says Ayush Chakraborty ’25. “It gave us a greater understanding of how they see their impact on society and what they see themselves doing as a company long-term. Even though it’s a humanities course, ‘AI and Society’ shows us that engineering and ethics can’t be considered independently.”

For their final project, students are working in groups with another Olin instructor to design embedded AI ethics content into existing courses. The project is like one Dean ran as a PhD student in robotics at Carnegie Mellon University.

“All of the courses are technical and related to AI in some way, such as ‘Discrete Math’ or ‘Software Design,’” says Dean. “Together, students are designing problems for future students to dissect, such as the ethical question of when to use AI tools as part of real-life scenarios.”

Image taken of class - AI + Society

Image of AI + Society course seminar, with Divya Shanmugam, PhD student, MIT (seated left), and Patrick Emedom-Nnamdi, Blavatnik fellow, Harvard University (seated right), joining the class during a Healthcare and Climate panel.

“We’re collaborating with faculty who’ve agreed to incorporate ethics into their existing curriculum,” says Jess Brown ’25, who, along with Chakraborty, is working alongside Ruvolo on content for his machine learning course. “We’re creating an ethics module on how biases in data can impact the integrity of the output of the model, allowing students to play around with different data sets with potentially different levels of bias to teach them how to rigorously evaluate their models and their performance.” 

Along with her co-instructors, Dean hopes to offer “AI and Society” in a future semester; in the meantime, she’s simultaneously working to integrate more ethics topics into the other technical courses she teaches, such as software design this spring.

“At Olin, we’re preparing these future engineers for a world that will be shaped by AI, for good or bad,” says Dean. “By incorporating AI and ethics concepts into multiple courses and disciplines, we’re allowing them to develop confident, competent perspectives that can serve them throughout their careers."