Putting Ethics at the Heart of Innovation

Photo: Toni Bird

From vastly safer cars to smart home systems, bioprinting to AI-assisted surgery, new technologies are transforming human society and enriching our daily lives. But while new products and applications have great potential to improve society, many also pose risks to human values—like privacy, security, freedom and equity. As the pace of change accelerates, it has become urgent that we take responsibility for the societal impact of our work and act to ensure that the benefits and burdens of technological advancement are fairly distributed. We cannot simply focus on innovation and let others worry about the risks.

To this end, Stanford’s Long-Range Vision pays special attention to the intersection of ethics, society and technology across each of its themes of empowering discovery and creativity, transforming learning and accelerating solutions. The goal of this focus is twofold: to empower researchers to explore the societal and ethical consequences of their work, and to ensure that students are equipped to address the effects of technological advancement, now and in the decades to come.

Stanford’s Ethics, Society and Technology Integrative Hub was developed under the Long-Range Vision to support our community in this work. Our hope for the hub is that, by assisting students and faculty in all seven Stanford schools as they explore the ethical dimensions of innovation, these values will become second nature in Stanford’s culture and beyond. By integrating ethics and innovation, the hub also offers new perspectives that we believe will spark further discovery and advances.

Indeed, innovation within this framework offers tremendously exciting possibilities for the future. Stanford’s Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence, which launched last spring, convenes experts in areas like law, philosophy and the humanities alongside leaders in computer science and engineering to consider AI’s impact on society. The institute’s goal is to develop artificial intelligence that reflects humanity’s values and complements our capabilities—rather than dividing or replacing us.

Our hope for the hub is that, by assisting students and faculty in all seven Stanford schools as they explore the ethical dimensions of innovation, these values will become second nature in Stanford’s culture and beyond.

Another critical aspect of our work is preparing Stanford students to tackle the challenges of the 21st century and manage rapid advances in science and technology. A new course in computer science, Computers, Ethics and Public Policy, encourages students to consider the societal effects of technology, including issues related to bias, privacy, security and political polarization. The course leverages the knowledge and expertise of faculty from the schools of humanities and sciences and of engineering. Demand is clear: In its first year, the class enrolled 300 students and had to turn away many more. Our students hunger for the opportunity to explore these issues.

While this course tackles ethics and technology, we are also making broader efforts under the Long-Range Vision to support undergraduate students in learning what it means to be engaged citizens in today’s world. Faculty members have proposed a first-year course focused on the ideas of civic education and global citizenship, to be taken by all incoming freshmen. Stanford’s faculty is debating the proposal and the shape the course would take, but the goal is to prepare students to address challenging ethical situations head-on and to contribute to the advancement of human society.

Stanford was founded with a purpose: to promote public welfare by exercising influence on behalf of humanity. Our renewed focus on ethics is one way to help ensure that human values do not get lost amid the fast pace of technological innovation. As Apple CEO Tim Cook said at last year’s commencement ceremony: “Technology doesn’t change who we are, it magnifies who we are, the good and the bad.” By embedding ethics at the heart of innovation, we can focus on magnifying the good and harnessing human ingenuity to improve lives and communities around the world.


Marc Tessier-Lavigne is the president of Stanford University.