Celebrating the Life of Columbia Professor Stephen Unger

He founded the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology

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Stephen Unger, founder and past president of the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology, died on 4 July at the age of 92. An IEEE Fellow, he played a principal role in developing the IEEE Code of Ethics.

Unger was professor emeritus of computer science and electrical engineering at Columbia, where he taught courses on technology and its impact on society.

He was a Guggenheim Fellow as well as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

From Bell Labs to Columbia

Photo of a smiling man in a sweater

IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology

Unger received his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1952 from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, New York, now the New York University Tandon School of Engineering. He went on to earn a master’s degree and Ph.D. in EE from MIT in 1953 and 1957, respectively.

He joined the technical staff at Bell Labs in Whippany, N.J. While there, he led the team that developed software tools that supported the first electronic telephone switching system.

In 1961 Unger left Bell Labs and joined Columbia, where he taught courses in digital systems, software, and computer theory. He retired in 2005.

Throughout his career, he consulted for technology companies including Bell Labs and IBM.

Unger was dedicated to promoting ethics in engineering. He published three books on the topic, including Controlling Technology: Ethics and the Responsible Engineer. He wrote several papers on ethics and technology, as well as computer science, and he penned articles for IEEE Technology and Society Magazine and The Institute.

Unger’s personal blog, “Ends and Means,” addressed ethical questions surrounding education, electronic voting, robotics, and other topics.

Guidance for engineers on ethical issues

In addition to his writing, Unger applied his passion for ethics to his volunteer work with IEEE. In 1969 he helped to found the Committee on Social Responsibility in Engineering, an organization of engineers who were concerned about the ways technology was being used. The committee was renamed the IEEE Technical Activities Board Committee on Social Implication of Technology three years later. Unger served as its vice chairman in 1980.

In 1982 the committee was granted society status as the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology. It investigates the environmental, economic, health, and safety implications of technology. Unger served as the society’s 1985–1986 president.

“One of the things that he was most proud of was his role in creating the Society [on] Social Implications of Technology,” Unger’s son Donald says.

He also helped establish the IEEE SSIT’s first award, the Carl Barus Award for Outstanding Service in the Public Interest. It recognizes individuals who take action to benefit the public, often at the risk of their own careers and reputations.

Unger served on the IEEE Board of Directors and on IEEE ethics committees. He fought for years to establish and maintain support for ethical behavior by IEEE members, including an IEEE ethics hotline.

He was a member of the IEEE Ethics and Member Conduct Committee from 1995 to 1998 and served as its chair in 1997 and 1998. The committee was established to discipline members for unethical conduct and to provide ethical support in matters affecting a member’s employment.

Unger played a principal role in the development of the original IEEE Code of Ethics in 1974 and helped update it in 1990.
He served on the IEEE Technical Activities Board, the Publication Services and Products Board, and the Educational Activities Board.

He received several awards including the 2000 IEEE Millennium Medal, the 1987 IEEE-USA Robert S. Walleigh Distinguished Contributions to Engineering Professionalism Award, and the 1984 IEEE Centennial Medal.

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