The university at the heart of Silicon Valley is to inject ethics into its technology teaching and research amid growing criticism of the excesses of the industry it helped spawn.
The board of Stanford University, one of the world’s richest higher education institutions with an endowment of $27bn, will meet this month to agree funding and a plan to implement the findings of an internal review that recommends a new initiative focused on “ethics, society and technology” and improved access to those on lower incomes.
“We are thinking through the ethics and impact of technological advances,” Marc Tessier-Lavigne, Stanford’s president told the FT in an interview. “We are such important players, we should not be doing it [teaching] and letting society pick up the pieces.”
Stanford alumni have created some of the world’s most powerful technology companies, many which were founded and continue to operate from near its campus in Palo Alto, California. Others have even modelled their offices on its campus style. The university trains many students and staff who advise or join the sector.
Asked about the recent criticism over privacy of customer data and the manipulation of postings centred on Facebook, which is based nearby, Mr Tessier-Lavigne said: “Maybe some forethought seven to 10 years ago would have been helpful.”
Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, did not attend Stanford, although its students were early adopters of the social media platform and Mr Zuckerberg’s foundation has pledged donations to the university.
While the technology industry grapples with the fallout from its tools being used for everything from election manipulation to terrorist recruitment, many companies are becoming concerned about approaching artificial intelligence more ethically.
Advances in AI have been accompanied by accusations that it frequently replicates and even accentuates human biases, while the black box algorithms can make it hard to understand whether a decision was reached ethically.
Facebook is developing software called ‘Fairness Flow’ to examine AI systems.
While university course subjects including medicine and even business increasingly offer ethics as part of their curricula, engineering and computer science remain focused on technical issues. Brad Smith, president of Microsoft, this year called for standards of accountability and a Hippocratic oath to do no harm.
Former Stanford students include the founders of Hewlett-Packard, Google, LinkedIn, Instagram, Netflix, Yahoo, Snapchat, PayPal, WhatsApp and Cisco. Sun Microsystems was even named after the initials of the Stanford University Network, and a Stanford Silicon Valley alumni network currently numbers 1,149 members.
Mr Tessier-Lavigne said that the university would begin earmarking funds this autumn for research and faculty appointments linked to the new strategy, ahead of fresh fundraising and broader announcements next year. He said there was scope for companies and philanthropists to contribute but support “has to respect academic values, freedom to publish and objectivity”.
In a reflection of the rising price of university fees and the very high cost of living in the San Francisco Bay area — largely triggered by the growth linked to Silicon Valley companies — he said Stanford would also step up its relations with the local community and escalate its “needs-blind” admissions policy.
He said the university already had an ethnically and racially diverse student population but an insufficient intake from those on lower incomes including from “the middle class which is increasingly hurting”. He also wanted to offer free tuition and accommodation to a higher proportion of international students.