What would it take to make computing anti-racist?

Computer science and engineering students tackle this issue as part of first-year class

Group of 10 people posing for a photo in Davis 101.

Group photo of the student participants and one of the judges, Phylicia Brown, in the Impossible Project: Making Computing Anti-Racist. Front row, from left: Joy Lee, Edwin Irizarry, Morgan Li, Salvatore Brancato. Second row, from left: Ben Stegmeier, Liem Nguyen, Brenden Reilly, Phylicia Brown, Dmytro Crawford, Maisoon Anwar. Photo credit: Madison Dailey.

By Nicole Capozziello

Published March 8, 2022

“To be clear, the Impossible Project is not a reasonable, nor modest, nor practical endeavor,” said Dalia Antonia Caraballo Muller, kicking off the recent Impossible Project: Making Computing Anti-Racist Student Solution Competition event. “But these are not modest, nor practical, nor reasonable times. We need something different.” 

“Participating in this competition allowed me to grapple with the idea of how intertwined ethics is in computer science. I’ll forever be vigilant on how my future work will impact others and raise concerns if I ever see potentially discriminatory software.”
Morgan Li, first-year computer science student

Muller, the founder of the Impossible Project and an associate professor of Latin American and Caribbean History at UB, went on to ask the audience to “suspend disbelief for a time and engage in an act of collective dreaming” as four student groups took the stage in Davis Hall on February 9, 2022 to share their ideas for building a world in which computing could be anti-racist.

Their ideas, which were deemed the best out the more than 120 proposed in the first-year computer science and engineering course, CSE 199: Internet, Computing and Society, ranged from voter engagement strategies to diversifying K-12 reading lists to an algorithm that could detect racist policies.

Dmytro Crawford and Morgan Li were awarded first place and a $750 prize. The other students who presented were Maisoon Anwar and Salvatore Brancato; Edwin Irizarry, Liem Nguyen and Brenden Reilly; and Joy Lee and Ben Stegmeier. Phylicia Brown, executive director of Black Love Resists in the Rust; Maria Rodriguez, assistant professor in the UB School of Social Work; and D. Sivakumar (PhD, CS, ’96), cofounder of Tonita, Inc. served as judges. 

“Participating in this competition allowed me to grapple with the idea of how intertwined ethics is in computer science,” said Morgan Li, a first-year computer science major. “I’ll forever be vigilant on how my future work will impact others and raise concerns if I ever see potentially discriminatory software.”

The competition, as well as the curriculum development work leading up to it, was funded by a Mozilla Responsible Computer Science Challenge award, which aims to integrate ethics and responsibility into U.S. higher education computer science programs. 

Kathy Pham, a senior advisor to Responsible Computer Science at Mozilla and guest speaker at the event, said to the audience, “It won't always be easy – you might be knocked down, you might be told to just focus on coding, as I have been. But wherever you are, whatever company you're at, whatever their mission is, be that person that drives that company towards an anti-racist, better future.”

Bringing the Impossible to CSE

Muller founded the Impossible Project in 2017, with the mission of fomenting, supporting and sustaining the co-creation of transformative learning experiences that empower students to imagine just futures for our world and planet, and to call those futures into being. 

“The challenge that has driven me as an educator all of these years is to be able to teach my students in a way that inspires them not just to care about justice, but to make justice work a part of their daily lives,” said Muller.

Over the years, Impossible Projects have taken various forms, from a collaboration with the School of Management that calls MBA students to envision solutions to inequality on a global scale to a project with the Graduate School of Education that asks middle schoolers to design a utopia, among others.

In 2019, while the Director of the Honors College, Muller met Atri Rudra, a professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) who was serving as a Fellow in the Honors College at the time. Rudra had long had an interest in incorporating ethics into CSE pedagogy, at UB and beyond.

As the Principal Investigator of the Mozilla grant, Rudra had also contributed to Mozilla’s “Teaching Responsible Computing Playbook,” a guide to how schools can update curricula to place more emphasis on ethics while designing technology products.

“After we met, I joked to Dalia that if she really wanted to do something impossible, she could convince our computer science and engineering students that they are responsible for the societal implications of what they build,” said Rudra.

Bringing this discussion – of tech’s impact on society, and the role of computer scientists, who often see their job of writing code as divorced from ethics – to the classroom is a relatively recent and radical idea. And thus, thought Muller and Rudra, it was the perfect candidate for an Impossible Project.

Collaborating on a Radical Curriculum

In fall of 2021, 600 first-year students were introduced to the Impossible Project: Making Computing Anti-Racist, through a two-week module taught by Kenneth Joseph, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering. 

The module was the result of over a year of interdisciplinary curriculum development. Muller, Rudra, and Joseph, along with Kimberly Boulden, an education assessment consultant, and a cross-disciplinary team of student research assistants, began working together in 2020 to create the unique racial justice curriculum, the first of its kind in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering. 

After months of research and discussion, the group landed on illustrating racial bias in tech through a case study of PredPol, a predictive policing company that utilizes an algorithm to predict crime.

“One of the things we’re trying to get the students to think about is, does technology have values? And if so, whose values and why?’” said Joseph.

Student research assistants were involved in every stage of the process, from research to curriculum-building.

“In helping form this course, I wanted to ensure that CSE students understood past and present injustices to prevent and combat future inequities, helping to build a more just society,” said Alexis Harrell, an undergraduate research assistant and past president of the Society and Computing Club, an interdisciplinary student club dedicated to examining the implications of computing on society at large.

Towards a Brighter Future of Computing

“There’s this romantic narrative that we can solve everything with tech when in reality, this isn’t true,” said Rudra. “It might seem hopeless, but that first realization – that you cannot solve everything with tech alone – is incredibly useful and powerful because then you start asking, ‘Who else can I talk to?’ and ‘How can we make it better?’”

These questions embody values central to the Impossible Project: cross-disciplinary collaboration and working towards a better future, while understanding that this work is never done.

Muller, Rudra and Joseph see the Impossible Project: Making Computing Anti-Racist as just the beginning of their collaboration. Next spring, Rudra and Joseph, who teach an elective course called Machine Learning and Society, plan to run a semester-long Impossible Project. Their students will collaborate with Muller’s, who will be simultaneously taking a history course on the African diaspora called Rage Against the Machine.

“The Impossible Project is deceptive because it leads you to think that all you have to do is work harder and you will be able to make the impossible possible. But, in truth, the Impossible Project is the journey and not the endpoint. The endpoint proves to be nothing more than another door to open,” says Muller. “That is what the CSE 199 students presented at the Impossible Project finale event. They brought forth new imaginings of another possible future. Those are dreams, but they‘re also real.”

Photo credit: Madison Dailey.