Despite the high-minded promise of tech's potential to enrich our lives, each day brings a new headline about its negative effects.
Whether it's cyberbullying, harassment, election meddling, content policing or the latest major data breach, Silicon Valley stalwarts like Facebook, Google and Twitter have all taken hits over the last few years for contributing to a toxic online culture.
Now, Mozilla wants to tackle the problem at the grassroots level – by teaching coders to not be evil.
The nonprofit technology company, responsible for the Mozilla web browser, announced on Wednesday a partnership with Omidyar Network, Schmidt Futures and Craig Newmark Philanthropies to integrate ethics and accountability into computer science undergraduate programs nationwide.
The initiative, known as the Responsible Computer Science Challenge, will offer prizes up to $3.5 million to "promising approaches to embedding ethics into undergraduate computer science education, empowering graduating engineers to drive a culture shift in the tech industry and build a healthier internet," according to a news release.
The awards, which will be given out between December 2018 and July 2020 in a series of stages, are detailed here.
“In a world where software is entwined with much of our lives, it is not enough to simply know what software can do. We must also know what software should and shouldn’t do, and train ourselves to think critically about how our code can be used. Students of computer science go on to be the next leaders and creators in the world, and must understand how code intersects with human behavior, privacy, safety, vulnerability, equality, and many other factors," said Kathy Pham, a Mozilla fellow and computer scientist who is co-leading the challenge, in a statement.
She added: “Just like how algorithms, data structures, and networking are core computer science classes, we are excited to help empower faculty to also teach ethics and responsibility as an integrated core tenet of the curriculum.”
As Mozilla points out, the same software and algorithms that can open up opportunities and connect people separated by oceans can also radicalize users, promote racism and spread misinformation.
The effort is backed by tech leaders like Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, eBay co-founder Pierre Omidyar and former Google CEO and Executive Chairman, Eric Schmidt.
“As an engineer, when you build something, you can’t predict all of the consequences of what you’ve made; there’s always something. Nowadays, we engineers have to understand the importance and impact of new technologies. We should aspire to create products that are fair to and respectful of people of all backgrounds, products that make life better and do no harm," Newmark said in a statement.