Thought LeadershipJanuary 12, 2022

Better training in engineering ethics could improve the safety of technology

Advances in technology are creating new ethical challenges for engineers, but many educational institutions are not yet equipped to effectively teach students how to consider ethical dilemmas in their work.
Avatar Jordan Gershman

In 1950, English mathematician Alan Turing proposed the idea that machines might one day exhibit intelligent behavior comparable to that of humans. Now, artificial intelligence (AI) is commonplace in many aspects of everyday life, replacing human judgment in situations that range from shopping recommendations to life-or-death decisions.

As AI and machine learning technologies become more pervasive, however, can they also be taught to act ethically? And, if ethics are to be factored into AI, who decides which ethics to apply? 

“Ethics has always been important in engineering, but as technology has developed it’s become more complex,” said Joe Herkert, an associate professor emeritus and lecturer of engineering and technology ethics at North Carolina State University. “Technology now interacts with the public in ways that were not as pervasive in the past.”

Engineering affects humans in many ways, often positive. In the development of autonomous vehicles, for example, AI is being applied to reduce the number and severity of car accidents.

But the ethics of engineering are not always positive – and not always clear-cut. When engineers take shortcuts that endanger public safety – or are pressured to compromise performance in pursuit of profits – what role should ethics play? What about working on projects where what’s good for some is not good for others – helping oil companies continue producing non-renewable fuel sources or engineering drones to perform assassinations, for example? How can engineers recognize and resolve such dilemmas?

A greater awareness and understanding of ethics among engineers, their employers and society as a whole is an important first step in addressing such issues, Herkert said. He and other educators are uniquely positioned to achieve this by increasing their coverage of the topic in class.

“In some cases engineers raise objections, but often they are not listened to,” Herkert said. “As we increasingly employ emerging technologies, such as AI, nanotechnology and biomedical engineering, they are becoming more complex and prone to failure in ways that we might not be able to anticipate. The technology is also developing so fast that it’s hard for regulators to keep up. Ethics is now more important than ever.”

Ensuring Ethics in Bioengineering

Biomedicine is one engineering sector where ethical questions are particularly apparent. For example, gene editing is now possible with CRISPR, enabling scientists to correct errors in DNA that may cause disease or disability – but also raising the possibility of “engineering” humans in ways likely to raise ethical issues.

“There’s debate over to what extent these technologies should be used to enhance human performance, beyond the therapeutic,” Herkert said. “I teach a course on ethical dimensions of progress, and students often have a hard time seeing the difference between designing an artificial limb for a soldier who loses their arm in battle and creating an artificial limb for a soldier that can be used in battle, as a weapon.

“Giving humans the ability of ‘x-ray vision’ would be an enhancement beyond the therapeutic. Something similar to that, using wireless technology, is becoming more possible by the day. With it, there must be a greater conversation around the ethics of doing so, and how it could have detrimental effects on privacy and security, for example.”

Essential Education

If engineering ethics is taught at all, however, it is – at best – inconsistent. For example, the authors of an article in the European Journal of Engineering Education found that “a majority of educators in all three groups [the US, Western Europe and non-US Anglo regions] viewed undergraduate and postgraduate education on ethics as insufficient.” The study also found that European educators put greater emphasis on ethics in sustainability and environmental issues, while US educators tended to focus more on codes of ethics, plus ethics in design and safety.

“In Europe, the situation is inconsistent and confusing,” said Manfred Hampe, a professor emeritus at Technische Universität Darmstadt (TUD) in Germany and board member of the European Association for Engineering Education (SEFI), which has several initiatives to raise awareness of ethics. “Some universities develop their own mandatory ethics modules, and some have elective courses. But somehow, engineers must be introduced to the methods of dealing with ethical dilemmas.”

Most lecturers use their own, anecdotal experiences to teach students, Hampe said, which contributes to inconsistency.

“German engineering professors have usually worked as professionals, so they have industrial experience and they talk about that,” he explained. “Ethical issues are generally the focus of these experiences.”

Students at TUD wanted formal education on the topic, though, so they specifically asked Hampe for philosophy and ethics training. In response, Hampe and his colleagues created a mandatory module that invited lecturers from the humanities to teach engineering students, with topics that included the philosophy of science and ethics.

Engineering students with ethics training can be valuable employees within organizations that value social engagement. (© Adobe Stock)

“The core idea was to always have lecturers from the humanities and engineering talking together in front of the students, looking at the two sides of the same coin,” he said. “Despite being a mandatory part of our engineering courses, it was very successful, with very few students complaining. Most were very pleased to be confronted with these topics.”

Herkert’s experience aligns with research and with anecdotal evidence that younger generations have strong personal ethics. For example, a study by Cone Communications found that 64% of Millennials won’t accept a job if the company doesn’t have strong corporate social responsibility goals, and 88% say their job would be more fulfilling if they were given opportunities to make a positive social and environmental impact.

Peakon – the employee engagement platform offered by human resources software firm Workday  – found that Generation Z is the first generation to highlight social concerns and issues around climate. For organizations that want socially engaged employees, therefore, a more ethical approach to business could be a game-changer.

The Case of Case Studies

Herkert’s interdisciplinary career has straddled both engineering and society. Having taught engineering ethics in the US for more than 35 years, he has found that the most common – and potentially effective – method of teaching the subject is through case studies.

“For many years I used the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster,” he said. “Engineers warned that the weather conditions were too cold to prevent leaks in the O-ring seals of the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters; upon launch an O-ring leaked, destroying the shuttle and killing seven crew members. Postponing the launch [as called for in NASA’s safety protocols] could have saved lives.”

Such examples, as well as more common, everyday cases, allow educators to fully address the importance of ethics. Herkert cites citing philosopher Michael Davis, a professor of philosophy at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and senior fellow in its Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions, with breaking the goals for teaching ethics into four main categories: the profession’s expectations; recognizing the presence of an ethical dilemma; tools to address these dilemmas; and an emphasis on developing the ethical willpower to speak up or take action.

“The latter is possibly the most important,” Herkert said. “If students encounter these issues while at work, we want them to be able to act on them in some way.”

Case studies resonate with his students, Herkert said.

“Of course, there is some diversity in how well students receive their teaching,” he said. “Some students don’t see the importance of ethics and are here to purely learn the science. Others seem to really enjoy the thought processes involved in the ethical aspects and see it as an important additional aspect of their engineering education. In the last 5 to 10 years, I would say more of my students fit into the latter group.”

Self-Guided Learning

Not all students are fortunate enough to attend one of the few universities that offer ethics training. To address this need, Hampe sought to democratize access through his role at SEFI.

SEFI consists of six special-interest groups, including one on ethics, but that group had gone dormant. In 2016, SEFI considered whether it should disband the then-inactive group permanently. Hampe, a member of SEFI’s Board of Directors, spoke against closure. “We managed to keep the group alive and I was made chairman,” he said.

With this new responsibility and reinvigorated motivation to teach engineers about the importance of ethics, Hampe created an “ethics reader.”

“I thought it necessary that engineers be made aware of ancient philosophical core texts,” Hampe said. “The idea was to take 12 pieces of literature from different ages and encourage engineers to use them as an independent, extracurricular way of dealing with ethics.”

Since the development of this learning material, SEFI’s ethics group has experienced an increase in participants and has added a co-chair who regularly creates seminars for participants.

Recognizing the Change

While many universities may still not provide mandatory ethics modules as part of their engineering curriculums, and all companies may not yet fully appreciate their ethical responsibility to the public, Herkert believes that ethics getting more attention in the industry.

“There has been progress, but it’s been slow,” he said. “In terms of engineering ethics education, I think we’re in a better place than we were 20 years ago, but there’s still room for improvement.

“Much has been done relating to ethical considerations around the environment in the last 20 years, but sustainability in its broader sense needs to be focused on more, so that it’s not just environmental sustainability but also social sustainability.”

The US National Science Foundation (NSF) funds a program for ethical and responsible research. While this program has resulted in valuable research on engineering ethics and responsible research, including innovative teaching methods, Herkert thinks ethics remain too much of an afterthought.

“Throughout my career, I’ve had many engineering faculty members ask me to write something for their technical grant proposals,” he said. “It’s good and bad; most of these proposals are the products of months of work, and the ethics component is added after the fact. If these researchers think that I can whip something up in a day, then the perception of ethics isn’t fantastic. It’s an add-on, not something that is integral to their research. But hopefully that’s changing.”

Discover new 3DEXPERIENCE offers for students

Stay up to date

Receive monthly updates on content you won’t want to miss


Register here to receive a monthly update on our newest content.