CS 181/181W: Computers, Ethics, and Public Policy, Spring 2020

Course basics

LecturesMonday and Wednesday, 3:00 p.m.–4:20 p.m. in Zoom this Zoom meeting. Requires signing in with stanford.edu account; please make sure to create an account before the first class.
Course calendarGoogle Calendar Add to Google Calendar
How to enrollPermission to enroll in CS181/CS181W will be granted to as many students as possible (up to 100 in CS181W, and 25 in CS181). To add your name to the waitlist, students are required to complete a short writing assignment due the first day of class. Please complete the writing assignment by 3 p.m. on April 6 (the revised first day of class). If you have completed the assignment and application and received a spot in the class, here is your enrollment code to use on Axess.
PiazzaPlease post questions on the class Piazza.
Sections Held on Thursday or Friday, starting in first week of class. Please fill out the section signup form.
Final examNo final exam
CS181W only181W students will meet with an instructor from the Technical Communication Program to revise and resubmit one of their assignments.
Project The major assignment in the class is a quarter-long project, culminating in a poster session and a presentation day at the end of the term. Please read the final project guidelines and due dates.


Keith Winstein
Assistant Professor of Computer Science

Email: Winstein email address
Office hours: Tuesdays (with Briggs) and Thursdays, 11 a.m.–noon at Zoom this Zoom meeting

Ray Briggs
Professor of Philosophy

Email: Briggs email address
Office hours:

Course Assistants

Emma Spellman
Email: espell@stanford.edu

Fraser Brown
Email: mlfbrown@stanford.edu

Sofía Dudas
Email: sdudas@stanford.edu

Thomas Yim
Email: thomascy@stanford.edu

Learning goals

CS 181/181W will focus on teaching:

  • how to recognize (how to train a grasshopper on your shoulder to be vigilant about noticing) when a decision you are facing has a significant ethical implication
  • how to reason about what should happen, consistent with the norms, culture, and experience of our discipline
  • how to make well-reasoned, persuasive arguments that can influence the course of events.
Coursework will include short online writing assignments (emphasizing the 400-word business memo), in-class exercises in making persuasive arguments out loud, and a quarter-long project. Attendance is required at lectures and sections.

Grading Breakdown

As per university policy for Spring 2019-2020 quarter, grading for everyone will be on a Satisfactory/No Credit basis. We will weight components of the course for grading as follows:

  • Self-Care: 10%
  • Writing Assignments: 30%
  • Project: 30%
  • Lecture Participation: 10%
  • Section Participation: 20%

Spring 2020 FAQ

Traditionally, CS181/181W is taught in a discussion-based, participatory format. With a cap of 125 students in the class, this will be the largest discussion-based class you have ever taken—and the largest videoconference we have ever conducted. We will do our best to teach you how to recognize situations with ethical import, reason about the right course of action, and persuade your organization to follow, and we'll do exercises in class and in section to help you hone your reasoning and persuasive skills. The class includes a major project that requires interacting with the world outside the Stanford campus. Attendance in the Zoom classes is required to participate in the discussions; the class is not recorded.

Please read the course FAQ included here:

Honor code

This is a class on ethics. All students are expected to follow the honor code, to give proper credit for work and for ideas, to act with integrity, and to “take an active part in seeing to it that others as well as themselves uphold the spirit and letter of the Honor Code.” The course staff is happy to answer questions, hypothetical or otherwise, about ethics in academic work and in computer science—it's what this course is about.

DateDue before classContent

Unit 1: risk and responsibility

Monday, April 6 Complete the writing assignment (required for entry to CS181/181W) L1 Overview of the class
  • Goals
  • Persuasive writing
  • Intro to cold-calling
  • Projects
  • How to enroll

Wednesday, April 8 Please fill out:

Please read:

Please complete:
L2 Responsibility
April 9–10 S1 First section meetings

Monday, April 13 Please read: Please submit: L3 Risk and Reward
Wednesday, April 15 Please read: Please submit: L4 Disasters
April 16–17 (WIM Students Only) Please complete: You should go to the site linked above to sign up for your required remote writing conference with the TCP. You will discuss one writing assignment you would like to revise.

Please choose only one slot for a remote conference. Send a copy of your work to the TCP instructor at least one day in advance of meeting! TCP instructors will send you a Zoom link.

TCP team emails:

S2 Second section meetings

Monday, April 20 Please read: Please submit: L5 Risk Redux
Wednesday, April 22 Please read: L6 Whistleblowing

Unit 2: AI discrimination and automated decision-making

Monday, April 27 Please read: Please complete: L7 What Good Are Statistics?
Wednesday, April 29 Please read: Please complete: L8 Statistics and Fairness
Monday, May 4 Please read: Optional Reading: L9 AI Fairness
Wednesday, May 6 No readings—please work on your projects. L10 How to lie with statistics (Winstein lecture)
Monday, May 11 Please read: Please complete: L11 AI and accountability

Unit 3: Silicon Valley Inc.

Wednesday, May 13 Please read: Please complete: L12 Participation in the tech industry
Monday, May 18 Please read: Optional reading: L13 Gender in the Silicon Valley professional workplace
Wednesday, May 20 Please read: Please complete: Optional reading: L14 Labor
Monday, May 25 Memorial Day (no classes)
Wednesday, May 27 Please read: Optional reading: L15 Incentives and emergent behavior

Unit 4: Hacking and information

Monday, June 1 Please read: Optional reading: L16 copyright and free software
Wednesday, June 3 Please watch: Please read: Optional reading: Please submit: L17 surveillance and privacy
Thursday–Friday, June 4–5 Final project writeups due (in section) Section project presentations in section
Monday, June 8 Please watch these two videos:
  • Victor, "Inventing on Principle" (2012, 54 minutes) (this one is better)
  • VPRO, "Beyond the emoji" (2019, 50 minutes) (this one is not as exciting but it has your instructor in it and it's about the ethics of emoji)
Please read: Please complete: Optional reading:
L18 infrastructure
Wednesday, June 10 L19 presentations in lecture from selected projects

End of class Have a fulfilling and healthy summer!