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Ethical Tech Competition

Students, Faculty and Industry Experts Consider Solutions to Ethical Issues in Emerging Technologies

Congratulations to the finalists of the Spring 2020 Ethical Tech Competition!

Undergraduate Category

Winner: Jessica Edelson and Niharika Vattikonda (“TikTok’s Physiognomic Bubbles and Algorithmic Bias Amplify Messages of Hate”)

Notable Mention: Ishaan Kuman, Megan Richards, and Dev Seth (“A Privacy-Centric Contact Tracing Framework”)

Graduate Category

Winner: Andes Paciuc (“Smart Guns”)

Notable Mention: Wen Zhou (“Overweighing Underrepresented Groups to Combat Algorithmic Discrimination”)


Duke students from across the University—including undergraduates from computer science, biomedical engineering, public policy, history, and philosophy, and graduate students in law, engineering, history, cultural anthropology, and political science—competed in the Spring 2020 Ethical Tech Competition. Individuals and teams submitted memos that identified and articulated solutions to ethical issues in emerging technologies. A panel of faculty and practitioners judged the submissions and chose winners, who received monetary awards and the publication of their proposals.

“When our security feels threatened, as it does now,” said Merritt Baer, Principal Security Architect for Global Accounts at Amazon Web Services and a judge in this year’s competition, “we must double down on our ethical values, as they are core to that which makes our world worth the fight. In essence, these students shared …[ideas] for how to change the world for the better.” In addition to judging this year’s competition, Baer gave a TechTalk last spring at the Kenan Institute for Ethics on careers in information technology.

Other contest judges included Stuart Brotman (Howard Distinguished Endowed Professor of Media Management and Law/Beaman Professor of Journalism and Electronic Media at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Science and Technology Innovation Program in Washington, DC), Davi Ottenheimer (Vice President of Trust and Digital Ethics at Inrupt), and Ken Rogerson (Professor of the Practice in the Sanford School of Public Policy and Director of Graduate Studies for the Sanford Master’s of Public Policy Program).

“I have been teaching and researching about technology policy for more than 20 years,” Professor Rogerson said. “Each year, more and more students see the intersection between technology, society and their own work and interests. This is not simply a good thing. It is absolutely necessary. Being a judge for this competition gives me a chance to see creative ideas in tech policy and get to know the young people who have them. I am more optimistic about the future when I do this.”

After a thorough review process and much deliberation, the judges, under the advisement of Kenan Visiting Faculty Margaret Hu, selected sophomores Jessica Edelson and Niharika Vattikonda as the winners of the undergraduate category, and law student Andres Paciuc as the winner of the graduate category.

Jessica Edelson and Niharika Vattikonda’s proposal— titled “TikTok’s Physiognomic Bubbles and Algorithmic Bias Amplify Messages of Hate”—explores the ways in which TikTok’s recommendation algorithm inadvertently promote the spread of harmful content on the platform. Edelson and Vattikonda argue that by providing users with information on how recommendation algorithms determine the content they receive and by altering the design for how users interact with their feeds, designers could reinvent the app based on democratic principles that allow users to more fully direct their experiences.

“Niharika and I were inspired to write our piece about algorithmic bias within TikTok after we realized that so many of our peers had turned to the platform- and thus its content recommendation algorithm- for entertainment during quarantine,” Edelson said. “Amidst the current pandemic, our society has grown more tech-dependent than ever before. As school, work, and social interaction are being reimagined to fit within the confines a screen, I believe that it is more important than ever to be engaging in conversations about technology and ethics, particularly when it feels as if we have been stripped of much choice in the matter.”

Andres Paciuc’s proposal provides an overview of how smart gun technologies could lessen the number of youth suicides and accidental gun deaths, and addresses how political barriers and negative public perceptions of these technologies could be overcome in order to be implemented successfully.

“While smart guns are unlikely to prevent mass shootings, homicides, and adult suicides, they may be useful in preventing youth suicide and accidental gun deaths,” Paciuc said. “Even though these types of deaths do not comprise the majority of gun-related deaths, preventing gun-related deaths in children and teenagers is still a worthy public health goal.”

The Technically Right program at the Kenan Institute for Ethics was established in 2019 to create an intellectual space in which students, faculty, staff, and community members can come together to think critically about the ethical issues and challenges that we currently face and will continue to face in the future, and to advance ethical tech policy and innovation through interdisciplinary research, coursework, conferences, and student competitions.

In addition to the finalists of the undergraduate and graduate categories, the judges identified an honorable mention in each category: Ishaan Kumar, Megan Richards, and Dev Seth for the undergraduate category, and Wen Zhou for the graduate category.


For more information about the program and to learn about future opportunities, please visit https://kenan.ethics.duke.edu/technically-right/.

Jeremy Buotte

Jeremy Buotte provides support for the Human Rights, Global Migration, Religions and Public Life, and Technically Right programs at the Kenan Institute, as well as manages the Ethics Book Clubs for Staff.

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