bearded man standing talking to a younger female student
January 23, 2023

A Conversation with Harvard EthiCS Fellow Trystan Goetze

Andover students and faculty gather to discuss the ethics of games, computer science, and politics in technology
by Ryan Ravanpak

Last week, the Tang Institute hosted Harvard University Embedded EthiCS Postdoctoral Fellow Trystan Goetze for dinner and a conversation about the ethics of technology.

Dr. Goetze—in his second fellowship year at Harvard—works with graduate fellows across the school, as well as the department of computer science, on various issues at the intersection of science and normative ethics. A major part of the program is helping to integrate ethics-related curriculum into STEM discipline courses.

Andover students and faculty gathered in the institute with Dr. Goetze, who had just finished creating a module on the ethics of games for an AP secondary school audience. The discussion began there, identifying the differences between creating code with game-like elements that feel morally permissible and agreeable versus those that seem manipulative or exploitative. Students were excited to engage with the material.

During dinner, the group talked about game-like elements that seem arguably good. The language-learning app Duolingo incorporates game-like incentive structures to keep users engaged in the continuation of learning. Other apps incorporate game-like incentive structures that seem less beneficial. The photo-sharing app Snapchat, for example, used mostly by teens, utilizes a feature called Snapstreak. Snapstreaks incentivize users to send photos to the same person over and over and makes public the number of snaps shared between two users. These tend to quantify friendships and exploit psychological vulnerabilities.

Students and faculty were engaged throughout the conversation. Both raised many good questions, including what is the difference between normatively good or bad game-like design? Why do we find certain elements, like those in Duolingo, acceptable, and others not?

This conversation led to other threads, including the role of government regulations over tech. Should we have more regulations? If so, what should they look like? What hurdles do we face in getting them enacted as policy?

Earlier in the day, Dr. Goetze and I also spoke with students in computer science instructor Nick Zufelt’s course. That panel addressed the ethics of ChatGPT (artificial intelligence) and the intersection of ethics, medicine, and technology.

The students enjoyed these experiences, and we were glad to facilitate their learning and critical thinking about the subjects. We thank Trystan Goetze for taking the time to visit us at the Tang Institute.

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Ryan Ravanpak is the Tang Institute's Tatelbaum Visiting Scholar in Ethics and Creating.

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