The hottest new thing in computer science programs? Humanity

BY Sam BeckerMarch 29, 2023, 1:04 PM
Leavey Library on the Campus of the University of Southern California, as seen in March 2023 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Gary Coronado—Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

Burgeoning technologies such as artificial intelligence (A.I.) and virtual or augmented reality are stealing all the headlines as it relates to the next frontiers in computer science and engineering. And many schools and universities are embracing the public’s newfound interest in those topics.

After the University of Texas at Austin recently announced plans to launch an online master’s degree program in artificial intelligence, the school received 4,000-plus requests for additional information from prospective students within 24 hours of the announcement. While UT Austin and several other schools are looking for ways to open up the world of A.I. to more students, other universities around the country are taking aim at the fact that those technologies largely lack a human’s touch and empathy.

As such, humanity may just be the hottest new thing in computer science.

‘I’m trying to create geeks who can speak’

Willamette University is one of a number of schools that’s increasing its degree options for computer science students and will begin offering a master’s degree in computer science in the fall 2024. But Willamette’s program will differ from many existing programs in a key way: It will require that students take courses in subjects such as ethics and policy, all in an effort to garner a broader context for how the digital world interacts and can be useful to humanity.

“There’s a need for more ethically aware and human-focused technologists” in the tech field, says Jameson Watts, chair and executive director of computing and data science programs at Willamette University. “We feel that a smaller university with a liberal arts focus is uniquely positioned to provide that education,” he says, adding that while the large universities in Oregon have computer science programs, he feels they lack a focus on how technology will be used and ultimately useful on a broad scale.

With that in mind, Willamette’s program will retain a strong focus on producing computer science graduates who think more deeply about the ramifications of the technologies they may end up creating. “I want computer programmers that understand the context within which they are designing technology,” Watts says “That means you need some understanding of the humans that are likely to use the technology that you are creating.”

Watts explains that the tech field is rife with workers who struggle with thinking about the big picture in relation to the projects they’re working on—specifically, how they may end up affecting people’s lives or livelihoods, or how they may potentially be used by bad actors in ways they didn’t anticipate. For example, it’s hard to think that Mark Zuckerberg imagined Facebook becoming a tool for state-sponsored election interference, or that Netflix’s early engineers envisioned that the company would one day create content that could create a spike in the number of suicides among teenagers.

“I have personally been working in, or adjacent to, the tech world for a long time, I have a lot of personal contacts in tech, and without fail, when I interview my professional colleagues and friends, they always tell me that the number one skill lacking in their tech talent is contextual awareness and the ability to communicate,” Watts says. “I’m trying to create geeks who can speak.”

A dose of humanity in an increasingly digital world

As Willamette University gears up to launch its master’s program next year, another Pacific coast school is likewise beefing up its computer science and engineering offerings. The University of Southern California in March announced a new Center for Generative A.I. and Society, which will spend considerable resources to “explore the intersection of ethics and the use and evolution of generative A.I.,” according to the school’s press release.

Along with the schools of computer science and engineering, the new center will serve as a nexus of sorts for all of the 22 different academic schools at USC to work together to explore the future of A.I. and related technologies. The center will be a work in progress—and expand over time, according to Yannis C. Yortsos, dean of USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering.

“It’s been announced and funded at $10 million at this point, and is an effort among several schools at USC to address the impact of generative A.I.,” Yortsos says. “There will be additional expansions to capture other activities and disciplines in the university and society.” 

Like Watts, Yortsos says that USC educators are increasingly aware that the proliferation of A.I. and other technologies is happening fast—so it’s important to produce graduates who have a sense of how these technologies can ultimately impact humanity in a broad sense. “Generative AI is exploding in many different ways, and it has the potential to transform many of our activities hopefully in a positive way, but there may be unintended consequences,” he says. “There are positive and negative aspects.”

While students are typically excited to learn about emerging technologies and the career prospects that can go along with that, Yortsos says there’s a fair amount of interest in the big-picture aspect, too. Accordingly, USC is introducing new undergraduate classes that focus specifically on ethics and potential impacts on society from new technology. Such classes are likely to become more popular and ubiquitous in computer science programs in coming years. 

“People are talking about the exponential growth of A.I., and we’re living through it. It requires a lot of agility, and we may need to reinvent ourselves—need to look around and be reactive to what’s going on” in regards to changing technologies, Yortsos says. “These tools have the potential to transform the way we live,” he adds, though it’s necessary to be cognizant of “powerful, unintended consequences.”

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