PhD candidate Raja Timihiri’s research is focused on power system optimization, but she also has a keen interest in the ethical implications of engineering research and technology. Timihiri received a fellowship funded by Dave (BS ’76, MS ’78) and Sarah Epstein to develop modules for an ethics in engineering course. We spoke to Timihiri about how her interests in course design and ethics led her to enthusiastically take on the task.
How did you become interested in developing the ethics in engineering modules?
I was first interested in applying for the Epstein fellowship because of the course design component; I had recently been part of teaching and designing online course components for an introductory course for undergraduate engineering students. I quickly realized that this fellowship wouldn’t be just about course design. It has a nobler goal: introducing ethics to students in engineering. We started putting together introductory material on ethics that emphasizes the importance of ethical awareness in engineering and technology design. We’re aiming to develop a mini course in ethics that allows undergraduate students to fully appreciate the seriousness of the ethical dilemmas that can face all engineers.
Why is an ethical approach to engineering important to you?
I believe that ethics are part of everyday life. Many issues today aren’t considered or labeled ethical issues but in fact have ethical dimensions. For instance, distracted driving is a serious safety issue, but it’s also an ethical issue. One popular topic these days is that of automated vehicles or self-driving cars. While this technology has the potential to speed traffic and decrease accidents due to human factors, it has many ethical issues that aren’t usually considered. In fact, the ethics module I’m currently working on involves a case about the ethical implications of self-driving cars.
We hear a lot on the news about companies introducing their version of a self-driving car in cities across the country. At first look, this sounds very exciting, especially for engineers. But we also hear about several instances where these vehicles didn’t perform as expected, leading to several fatalities. A major ethical issue is the decisions that the vehicle’s algorithms will be making about collisions. For instance, if an automated vehicle (AV) is about to crash into a motorcyclist, should it be programmed such that it saves the motorcyclist’s life by instead crashing into a barrier? How about if doing this further risks the lives of the passengers in the car? Whose lives ought to be prioritized? Whose ethical responsibility is it to make such decisions? Can we ever create an “ethical algorithm” and what would such an algorithm actually do? Is it the engineers’ responsibility to program an “ethical” algorithm? If not, whose responsibility is it?
What do you hope the course achieves?
We aim to increase students’ ethical awareness and introduce some decision-making tools that can be useful in starting to answer some of these ethical questions. Most of the time there isn’t a clear-cut solution that would satisfy all parties involved. But there’s a process that must be followed to make sure that harm is minimized and safety is held above profit.