Published: Oct. 10, 2023 By

As automatic decision-making systems are integrated into the judicial system and workplace, people could potentially be sent to prison or fired, in part, by automated forces. Without people in the room who understand the limitations of such tactics, the potential for downstream harm escalates, says Bobby Schnabel, a CU Boulder professor of computer science and champion for access to computing.

"We have to start early and impress often that what we're creating—the power that we have—is truly immense," he said.

In response, CU Boulder’s Department of Computer Science is offering new online courses through Coursera that focus on ethics in computing.

Taught and created by Schnabel, the courses will be available to anyone worldwide, starting this October. They are self-paced and anyone can enroll at any time. 

Core concerns

Schnabel is concerned that not enough people understand the societal implications associated with the rapid proliferation of generative AI. 

"What concerns me the most is misinformation and the impacts of these emerging technologies on children," Schnabel said. 

Most of the course readings are topical news stories and applied readings on current issues.  Schnabel’s hope is that by showing the many negative effects of building computing applications without ethical safeguards, he can inspire critical thinking and encourage improved decision making beyond the realm of computer scientists. 

Schnabel also aims to protect consumers, who may not realize the potential disregard some technologies may have for their well being. As examples he points to an article about how Instagram may contribute to teenage girls feeling self-conscious and a TED talk discussing how browsers can alter access to political and social information based on ad interactions.

Schnabel has a history of advocating for representation in the tech world, championing the idea that everyone should see themselves reflected in the technologies we develop and embrace. 

In addition to co-founding the National Society for Women in Computing, Schnabel also serves as the chair of the advisory committee for the Computing Alliance of Hispanic Serving Institutions and helped establish the Alliance for the Advancement of African-American Researchers in Computing. He currently serves on the board of directors for, a nonprofit organization that offers free online curricula for computer science to k-12 students. 

Course Correction 

"Ethics, historically, has not been central to computer science," Schnabel said. 

The field initially focused on creating hardware to do business and scientific calculations. "I still remember when a computer as large as a room changed its storage from one megabyte to two, and what a huge deal that was," he said.

Through personal computers, he explained, many gained the ability to produce as well as consume information through the Internet and the world revolutionized. 

"The thing that has excited me the most over the last 30 or 40 years is just the availability of information," he said. "But now, almost anybody can also be a source of misinformation and it can spread extremely rapidly without any vetting of the source."

Seven years ago, Schnabel realized that the ethical ramifications of the tools being created by computer scientists were far outstripping the education required to make sound decisions. 

He was, at the time, the CEO for the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), the flagship organization for over 170 conferences on different aspects of computing, so he worked with Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence to create the joint conference on AI, Ethics and Society in 2017.

In addition, he worked with a cadre of computer scientists on the ACM's Education Policy Committee to build the ACM repository on Ethics and Computing. The repository now has over 300 works, largely from news media, and many of which are referenced in Schnabel's course. 

Coursera convenience

The series of three courses in ethics is a specialization which can be taken on its own, but is also required for all students taking the Masters of Science that CU Boulder is offering through Coursera. It accounts for twenty percent of the core required courses for the program, which Schnabel says shows how serious the college and university are about educating ethical computer scientists. 

Schnabel has seen the rise of the internet and personal computing from the inside out. He started programming in high school using punch cards. As he grows older, he wants to see how his wide-ranging experience could be of use to the world. 

"I've been in a variety of leadership roles, and I've been able to see that having a broad perspective can be very helpful," he said.  

He said he sees the course as an opportunity to provide that broad perspective to a wide audience, and hopefully create a pro-human trajectory for computing's massive power.