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Computational Ethics in NLP

UW CSE 599D1, Winter 2022
T/Th 10am-11:20am, CSE2 G04

Office hours are available on Zoom by appointment.


  • 1/28: Remote until further notice. UW guidelines allow for a return to in-person instruction starting Feb. But since the paper discussion format requires separating into small groups, we want to be mindful of COVID considerations of physical distancing, and many of the classes will be focused on paper discussion, we will be continuing to meet over Zoom until further notice.
  • 1/10: Remote for the rest of January. Following a recommendation from the University leadership, due to the rise of Omicron cases we’ll keep meeting on Zoom until the end of January. The instructors will not be on campus for office hours, but will still be available by appointment on Zoom.
  • 1/3: First week is canceled. Due to unforeseen circumstances, the first week of class is canceled and the first lecture will be held on Tuesday, 1/11. More details, including a link for the class Zoom meeting and Mattermost workspace, have been sent via email. If you did not receive an email, please contact the instructors.


As language technologies have become increasingly prevalent, there is a growing awareness that decisions we make about our data, methods, and tools are often tied up with their impact on people and societies. This course introduces students to real-world applications of language technologies and the potential ethical implications associated with them. We discuss philosophical foundations of ethical research along with advanced state-of-the art techniques. Discussion topics include:

  • Philosophical foundations: what is ethics, history, medical and psychological experiments, IRB and human subjects, ethical decision making.
  • Misrepresentation and bias: algorithms to identify biases in models and data and adversarial approaches to debiasing.
  • Privacy: algorithms for demographic inference, personality profiling, and anonymization of demographic and personal traits.
  • Civility in communication: techniques to monitor trolling, hate speech, abusive language, cyberbullying, toxic comments.
  • Democracy and the language of manipulation: approaches to identify propaganda and manipulation in news, to identify fake news, political framing.


Calendar is tentative and subject to change. More details will be added as the quarter continues.

Week Date Theme Contents Work due
1 1/04 Cancelled
1/06 Cancelled
2 1/11 Introduction Motivation, course overview and requirements, examples of projects in computational ethics [slides] [readings]
1/13 Human subjects History: medical, psychological experiments, IRB and human subjects. [slides] [readings]
3 1/18 Human Subjects Paper discussion [slides] [readings]
1/20 Philosophical Foundations Ethical frameworks, benefit and harm, power, automation [slides] [readings]
4 1/25 Philosophical Foundations Paper discussion [slides] [readings]
1/27 Social bias and (un)fairness Psychological foundations of bias; social bias and disparities in NLP models [slides]
5 2/1 Social bias in NLP models Paper discussion [slides] [readings]
2/3 NLP for detecting bias and stereotypes Paper discussion [slides] [readings]
6 2/8 Hate speech NLP for identifying and countering hate speech/toxicity/abuse [slides] [readings] Assign papers for ethics review
2/10 Hate speech Paper discussion [slides] [readings] Project pre-proposal due
7 2/15 Misinformation NLP for fact-checking and fake news detection, computational propaganda and political misinformation [slides] [readings]
2/17 Misinformation Paper discussion [slides] [readings]
8 2/22 Privacy Privacy and anonymity in NLP, writer profiling and adversarial defenses [slides] [readings]
2/24 Privacy Paper discussion [slides] [readings] Ethics review due
9 3/1 Green NLP Feedback on ethics reviews, paper discussion [slides] [readings]
3/3 Project Meetings Class is canceled; schedule individual meetings with Julian and Yulia on projects
10 3/8 Project Presentations Presentation schedule
3/10 Project Presentations Presentation schedule Project proposal due Sunday, March 13th, 11:59pm


  • Mattermost. Course communication will be via Mattermost, an open-source communications platform similar to IRC for which the Allen School has an internally-hosted instance. You should sign into using your CSE NetID and join the “team” for the class using an invite link which has been sent to you via email. Mattermost will be used for sharing discussion points and questions prior to in-class paper discussions.

  • Google Drive. Course materials, including lectures, reading lists, etc., are in a Google Drive folder which has been shared with all students. You will also use Google Drive for submitting your ethics reviews and project proposals.


There will be three components to course grades.

  • Paper readings and discussion (40%).
    • 30%: Submit discussion questions before class and participate regularly during class.
    • 10%: Lead at least one discussion.
  • Ethics review (30%). Review ethics reviewing guidelines and write an ethics review for a research paper.
  • Project proposal (30%). Write a proposal for a research project in ethical AI.
    • 2%: Pre-proposal: 1-2 paragraphs identifying the focus area of the project and team members.
    • 20%: Proposal.
    • 8%: Class presentation.
    • Bonus (15%): Implement the proposed project.


  • Academic honesty. Homework assignments are to be completed individually. Verbal collaboration on homework assignments is acceptable, as well as re-implementation of relevant algorithms from research papers, but everything you turn in must be your own work, and you must note the names of anyone you collaborated with on each problem and cite resources that you used to learn about the problem. The project proposal is to be completed by a team. Suspected violations of academic integrity rules will be handled in accordance with UW guidelines on academic misconduct.

  • Accommodations. If you have a disability and have an accommodations letter from the Disability Resources office, I encourage you to discuss your accommodations and needs with me as early in the semester as possible. I will work with you to ensure that accommodations are provided as appropriate. If you suspect that you may have a disability and would benefit from accommodations but are not yet registered with the office of Disability Resources for Students, I encourage you to apply here.

Note to Students

Take care of yourself! As a student, you may experience a range of challenges that can interfere with learning, such as strained relationships, increased anxiety, substance use, feeling down, difficulty concentrating and/or lack of motivation. All of us benefit from support during times of struggle. There are many helpful resources available on campus and an important part of having a healthy life is learning how to ask for help. Asking for support sooner rather than later is almost always helpful. UW services are available, and treatment does work. You can learn more about confidential mental health services available on campus here. Crisis services are available from the counseling center 24/7 by phone at 1 (866) 743-7732 (more details here).

COVID-19 Safety

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic and recent surge in cases due to the Omicron variant, and in accordance with UW guidelines, we are implementing the following policies to ensure the safety of our students and instructors to the maximum extent possible:

  • Remote access. If you are sick or have potentially been exposed to COVID-19, stay home! While we encourage everyone to attend class in-person when they are well, there will always be a Zoom meeting for the class and there is no penalty for attending remotely. Office hours are also available both in-person and over Zoom (by appointment).

  • Masking. When in public, indoor spaces occupied by other people, you must wear a mask. This includes class sections and office hours. See more about UW’s masking requirements here. The instructors will abide by the same masking policy.

    For the purposes of this policy, a face covering must fit snugly against the sides of the face and completely cover the nose and mouth. Bandanas and gaiters are not considered face coverings under this policy. Students who do not wear a face mask will be asked to leave the classroom. Repeated failure to wear a face covering may result in being referred to the Student Conduct Office for possible disciplinary action.

    UW has approved a hydration exemption which allows students and instructors to briefly move aside their mask if they are drinking water even in class. This exemption is meant be used only for a brief moment to hydrate, and does not allow talking with one’s mask off or having one’s mask removed for a prolonged period of time. This exemption does not allow for eating food in classes.

  • Social distancing. Currently, UW does not require social distancing in the classroom or office hours for students who are vaccinated and wearing a mask; it can also make it difficult to navigate and interact in such spaces. We do not mandate social distancing, but ask that if another student asks you to maintain distance from them, that you respect their request.

  • What if you get sick? See this FAQ for what to do.

  • What if we get sick? We will reschedule class, hold it remotely, or bring in a substitute lecturer/facilitator if necessary to prevent exposing students. We will try to give notice as far in advance as possible if an in-person event is moving to be held remotely, but please check your email beforehand to be sure you don’t miss anything.