Stanford students sour on big-tech careers amid ethics concerns

University synonymous with Silicon Valley careers now sees long battle with companies over corporate culture

September 24, 2021
  A man in a Destructoid costume on his head as Stanford students sour on big tech careers amid ethics concerns
Source: Getty

A number of Stanford University students and graduates appear to be avoiding or turning down job opportunities with leading technology companies in a bid to force changes in ethics and corporate culture.

The newly publicised cases include Hannah Mieczkowski, a doctoral student who declined an interview with Google for an internship this summer over last year’s high-profile firing of a scientist critical of bias in computer algorithms.

Far more Stanford students, Ms Mieczkowski said, were expressing similar concerns about technology companies as they neared the point of their own decisions on internships and jobs.

In one 250-student course she helps teach on ethics in technology, she said, “basically everyone I talked to was having that level of critical thinking conversation that I’m having right now”.

Such sentiments were tough to quantify, said one professor leading that course. But the instructor, Rob Reich, a professor of political science, said that the concern among students did appear to be broad and genuine. And that, Professor Reich said, suggested a sharp reversal of attitudes from just a few years ago, when careers in Silicon Valley were broadly respected.

The major shift, he said, appeared to date back to 2015 when the British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica was found to have been secretly harvesting personal data from Facebook users for political purposes.

“Prior to that,” he said, “getting a job at Facebook in particular, but any big tech company, was seen as a great thing – you went home for Thanksgiving or your winter break, you were super proud to tell everyone what you were doing, you were hitting the big time.”

Since then, Professor Reich said, there has been an accumulating series of scandals involving Facebook and other major technology companies, suggesting an eagerness for profit that has overwhelmed concern for the well-being of individuals and society more widely.

The technology industry has also been widely criticised for a largely white, male leadership that has been insufficiently attentive to the ways that their biases can become ingrained in corporate attitudes and computer algorithms.

Ms Mieczkowski’s chief concern with regard to Google involves Timnit Gebru, an Eritrean-American specialist in algorithmic bias and data mining and Stanford graduate who grew critical of her company’s record in such areas and was forced out last year.

Professor Reich is the co-author along with two other Stanford professors, Mehran Sahami of engineering and Jeremy Weinstein of political science, of a just-published book that chronicles the rapid downfall in respect for the tech industry.

They said that they began the book, System Error: Where Big Tech Went Wrong and How We Can Reboot, out of a concern that universities too often were absorbing rather than resisting the industry’s inattention to the needs of overall society.

The authors also created the technology ethics class in which Ms Mieczkowski has been a teaching assistant. The aims of the course, Professor Reich said, include confronting the idea that only technology insiders have the clout to fight antisocial attitudes in the technology industry.

“We’re in the beginning moment of what will be a decade, or two-decade, long period of pushing some of these decisions outside of companies,” he said.

One major effort by Stanford along those lines was its creation in 2019 of its Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence. That initiative is heavily involved in identifying and countering the ways that human biases can be wittingly or unwittingly ingrained into computer systems with extensive effects on society.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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