Concerns over ethics and diversity lead some Stanford students to say no to Silicon Valley

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Nine years after The New Yorker magazine labeled Stanford “Get rich uThe appeal of Silicon Valley remains strong for many students.

The number of undergraduate computer science majors at Stanford has almost quadrupled since 2010, and hackathons are almost as easy to find as fraternity parties. When Facebook, Microsoft or Google pay over $ 12,000 for a table at a job fair at Stanford, the return on investment is assured. Their famous brands – not to mention their six-figure starting salaries and equipment-rich work environments – are sure to attract large crowds of talented applicants.

But there are also students whose appreciation of the tech industry is tempered by concerns about ethics and corporate cultures in the valley.

Hannah Mieczkowski, a growing fifth-year doctoral student. communication student, recently decreases an interview with Google for a research internship, citing the dismissal of an artificial intelligence (AI) researcher Timnit Gebru ’08 MS ’10 PhD ’15, which she described “as indicative of a broader pattern of unfair behavior”.

Gebru, a pioneer in the area of ​​ethical AI, has gone through the Stanford pipeline, as have Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page. Gebru announcement that Google fired her on December 2, 2020, after she critical the company for preventing it from publishing its latest studies on bias in AI systems. Google CEO Sundar Pichai in an email to employees on December 9 recognized that “we must accept responsibility for the fact that a prominent black female leader, blessed with immense talent, has unfortunately left Google,” and has promised to examine the circumstances which led to her departure.

Like Gebru, Mieczkowski observed the damaging effects of algorithms throughout the evolution of Silicon Valley. She referenced the audience backlash surrounding Twitter’s recently rejected image cropping algorithm, which would crop photos with one white person and multiple black people in a way that nine out of 10 times would only show the white person in the preview. picture, according to Mieczkowski. She added that there had been repeated instances of Twitter cropping women’s breasts without user intervention. After huge criticism, Twitter deleted the automatic cropping function.

But what Mieczkowski called “the most invigorating aspect of change in Silicon Valley and across the country” are attempts to work organization inside tech companies. She cited the Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) – named after Google’s parent company – as a rare creation in an industry historically resistant to organizing its white-collar workers. She described these unions as part of a “solidarity-driven” change in the industry, which “will hopefully make big waves.”

Similar to Mieczkowski, Alyssa Romanos ’22 turned down the opportunities of Big Tech in search of an environment that more closely aligns with her belief systems. Romanos is preparing to do a software engineering internship at Gusto, a San Francisco-based startup known for its modern approach to provide salaries, benefits and human resources to small businesses. Romanos said she was drawn to Gusto because of the “mission-oriented” nature of the business and its commitment to “helping small businesses, especially at a time like this”.

A new software engineer at a leading internet business can expect an annual salary of $ 140,000 after graduation, often with perks like free office food per year. Michelin-starred chefs, hiking trails, massage specialists and juice bars. For Arnob Das ’22, when he recently visited Google’s headquarters in Mountain View as a potential intern, something about it seemed too good to be true.

“They’ve got their showers and beds and dinners made and everything – and you never go,” he said. “There is no separation between productivity and your life. I think there is more to life than just working all the time.

Das participated in a program of Global Good, a social impact startup accelerator supported by the Gates Foundation and Intellectual Ventures. After receiving capital from Beverly Hills-based Kairos Ventures, he co-founded Hex Labs, a startup designed to develop new database technologies for medicine, quantum computing and energy, in June 2016. Das sued the business as he entered college.

Hex Labs has had enough success to be considered one of the Top 50 emerging companies in 2019 by magazine Inc. But even then, Das had conflicts over what he was doing. As he continued to develop the startup, he noticed that some fellow entrepreneurs “cut a lot of shortcuts” and make morally questionable choices. He was in high school when he learned that a project he had been working on could be turned into a weapon for gun technology.

“So I saw how even philanthropic efforts are not clean,” he said.

In January, Das disbanded Hex Labs and is now working on an individually designed molecular engineering major, as well as a minor in Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies. He said that by starting Hex Labs he learned a lot about the value systems that drive a company’s culture.

Major IT claims at Stanford began to increase significantly in 2007, April report says report of the History of Technology Project. Between 2010 and 2020, the number of baccalauréat holders awarded in the department increased from 86 (5% of the promotion) to 307 (17%). The number of master’s degrees conferred in computer science has doubled and the number of doctorates has increased slightly. Among course types, those related to data science and interdisciplinary technology have seen the greatest growth in popularity.

In the 250-page Tech History Project report, a team of students led by Nik Marda ’21 and Julia Ingram ’21 (also a former editor of the Daily) recount the good, the bad and the ugly of Stanford’s role in technology and public policy over the past decade. The report includes several recommendations for the leaders of tomorrow. They focus on maintaining Stanford’s status as a hub of innovation, increasing diversity and inclusion, and creating more technology for ethical and public interest.

Marda entered college thinking he would get a computer science degree, maybe explore politics a bit, and then pursue a career in Silicon Valley – “the classic Stanford path,” as he put it. . Then came the Facebook data privacy scandal – Cambridge Analytica from 2018. Marda said he recalled seeing Mark Zuckerberg testify before Congress. “It was also very clear from this audience that we have a lot of work to do, not only to properly regulate technology, but to have the right conversations around it in the halls of Congress and in civil society,” did he declare.

Marda’s interests eventually began to crystallize at the intersection of technology and government. In the middle of his pivot, he met Constanza Hasselmann ’21, the founder of the Public Interest Technology (PIT) Lab, a student organization focused on public interest technologies at Stanford. The following year, he joined her to co-lead the organization.

“The number of students I see who are interested in, for example, technology policies, at least empirically, is much larger now than I thought in 2017 or 2018,” Marda said. “And I think there’s a lot more support now, whether it’s from organizations like PIT Lab, or the Stanford Cyber ​​Policy Center, or all kinds of organizations for students to start learning. engage in work. “

The popularity of big tech jobs is still strong, but conscientious objection is becoming more common among young people, with echoes of the past, according to Katie Creel, a Embedded ethics comrade at Stanford. “If you go back to the 1960s and 1970s, it was extremely common for applied mathematicians and early computer scientists to be very public and speak out on projects they wouldn’t be working on,” Creel said. Likewise, today, more and more professionals in Silicon Valley are reflecting on their values ​​and the global impact they wish to have on the world.


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