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POL 55 — The Ethics of Technological Disruption: A Conversation with Silicon Valley Leaders and Beyond

Quarter: Winter
Day(s): Wednesdays
Course Format: On-campus
Duration: 6 weeks
Date(s): Jan 16—Mar 13
Time: 7:00—8:50 pm
Drop Deadline: Feb 5
Unit: 1
Grade Restriction: No letter grade
Tuition: $355
Instructor(s): Rob Reich, Mehran Sahami, Jeremy Weinstein, Hilary Cohen
Limit: 460
Status: Open
Please Note: No class on January 30, February 13, and February 27
7:00—8:50 pm
Jan 16—Mar 13
6 weeks
Drop By
Feb 5
1 Unit
Grade Restriction
No letter grade
Rob Reich, Mehran Sahami, Jeremy Weinstein, Hilary Cohen
Please Note: No class on January 30, February 13, and February 27
In 2001 Google adopted the tagline “Don’t Be Evil” to describe its corporate code of conduct. In 2015 when Google was restructured within its parent conglomerate, Alphabet, the motto was replaced by “Do the Right Thing,” which remains the corporation’s tagline today. Though particular to one company, these mottos reflect and help shape attitudes across the technology industry more broadly—even gesturing toward something like a Hippocratic Oath. Although brevity is their virtue, both mottos also raise essential questions, starting with this one: Do they set a high bar or a low bar? And, more to the point, have technologists given enough thought to the world they’re making, to the dislocations they’re enabling, and to the lives and livelihoods they are often unknowingly changing, both here at home and across the world?

This quarter, three senior Stanford faculty (a computer scientist, a political scientist, and a philosopher, all award-winning teachers) have joined forces along with invited entrepreneurs, engineers, policy-makers, and investors throughout the tech community in order to ask, and perhaps to answer, some of the profound ethical questions posed by the rapidly expanding and unpredictably evolving technology sector. Among other issues, we will explore data privacy, artificial intelligence, autonomous systems, algorithmic bias, the attention economy, and the power of private platforms. With each topic, we will encounter a range of perspectives, allowing us genuinely to wrestle with the tensions and trade-offs that accompany technological change.

With every new innovation, we need to ask: What does this technology enable others to do? What responsibilities does this imply for me as an innovator, a citizen, and a human being? The goal of the course is to bring about a fundamental shift in how we think about our roles as enablers and shapers of technological change in society. The course will challenge all of us to internalize a commitment to our responsibilities as innovators, designers, coders, engineers, policy-makers, citizens, and consumers.

Confirmed guest speakers include:

Brian Acton, Co-Founder, WhatsApp

Krishna Bharat, Founder, Google News

Courtney Bowman, Privacy and Civil Liberties Team Lead, Palantir

Avril Haines, Former White House Deputy National Security Advisor (2015-2017); Former Deputy Director, CIA (2013-2015)

Reid Hoffman, Co-Founder and Executive Chairman, LinkedIn; Partner, Greylock Partners

Ellora Israni, Co-Founder and Co-Chair, she++; 2017 Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow, Harvard Law

Mike Kaul, CEO in Residence, Defense Innovation Unit Experimental

Jeff Larson, Managing Editor, The Markup

Rick Ledgett, Former Deputy Director, National Security Agency (2014-2017)

Jennifer Lynch, Surveillance Litigation Director, Electronic Frontier Foundation

Safiya Noble, Associate Professor, UCLA; Author, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism

Marietje Schaake, Member, European Parliament (from the Netherlands)

Rob Sherman, Deputy Chief Privacy Officer, Facebook

David Siegel, Co-Founder, Two Sigma

Nikhyl Singhal, Chief Product Officer, Credit Karma

Alex Stamos, Former Chief Security Officer, Facebook; William J. Perry Fellow, Center for International Security and Coorperation (CISAC), Stanford

Nicole Wong, Former Deputy Chief Technology Officer of the United States (2013-2014); Former Legal Director of Products, Twitter (2012-2013); Former Vice President and Deputy General Counsel, Google (2004-2011)

Course Instructors:

Rob Reich, Professor of Political Science and, by courtesy, Professor of Philosophy and of Education, Stanford

Rob Reich is the director of the Center for Ethics in Society and faculty co-director of the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. His new book is Just Giving: Why Philanthropy Is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better.

Mehran Sahami, Professor (Teaching) of Computer Science; Robert and Ruth Halperin University Fellow in Undergraduate Education, Stanford

Mehran Sahami teaches courses on programming methodology, probability for computer scientists, and is designing a new course on computer ethics. His research interests include computer science education, machine learning, and web search. Prior to joining the Stanford faculty, he was a Senior Research Scientist at Google. He received a PhD in computer science from Stanford.

Jeremy Weinstein, Associate Professor of Political Science; Senior Fellow, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies; Sakurako and William Fisher Family Director, Stanford Global Studies Division; Ford-Dorsey Director of African Studies, Stanford

Jeremy Weinstein's research focuses on civil wars and political violence; ethnic politics and the political economy of development; and democracy, accountability, and political change. He has also worked at the highest levels of government on major foreign policy and national security challenges, engaging in both global diplomacy and national policy-making. Between 2013 and 2015, Weinstein served as the Deputy to the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and before that as the Chief of Staff at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. He received a PhD in political economy and government from Harvard.

Hilary Cohen, Pre-Doctoral Research Fellow, The McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, Stanford

Hilary Cohen is a pre-doctoral research fellow at Stanford’s Center for Ethics in Society, where she works on a range of initiatives focused on the intersection of ethics and technology. Prior to Stanford, she served as a strategic advisor to the Obama Foundation, where she helped develop the initial mission and program strategy, which is focused on inspiring and empowering the next generation of civic leaders.

Textbooks for this course:

There are no required textbooks; however, some fee-based online readings may be assigned.