Engineering 24, Section 1

Boeing 737 MAX: Money, Machines, and Morals in Conflict (1 unit, P/NP)

Professor Brian Barsky
Monday 4:00-6:00, 606 Soda Hall, Class number: 32180

This seminar explores the ethical issues of corporate behavior and lack of government oversight leading to crashes of the newest commercial passenger airplane. The Boeing 737 MAX aircraft was grounded worldwide after two fatal crashes with similar characteristics within five months of each other. The FAA ungrounded it in November 2020, despite many lingering safety concerns, and it is still prohibited from flying in the airspace in some countries. In both incidents, pilots could not control the aircraft shortly after takeoff resulting in tragic crashes with no survivors. Due to concerns about financial losses, there was pressure to resume the use of the 737 MAX for commercial passenger flight as soon as possible notwithstanding continued safety concerns. Examination of the many factors that led to these disastrous consequences illuminates disquieting ethical issues of corporate behavior and lack of government oversight. There is a complex web of concerns involved. At the heart is a computer software that controls the aircraft (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS) which was a key element in the crashes. This seminar will require students to research and present some of the issues involved in this timely matter. Possible topics to be discussed include physics of flight, aeronautics, avionics, aircraft design, engineering ethics and the social responsibility of engineers, corporate interest and business ethics, the role of responsible government, issues of increased reliance on complex software replacing humans, etc.

Students should feel free to contact Prof. Barsky at with any questions.

Instructor Bio

Brian A. Barsky is Professor of the Graduate School. He is a Warren and Marjorie Minner Faculty Fellow in Engineering Ethics and Professional/ Social Responsibility. Prof. Barsky has faculty affiliations in Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences (EECS), Optometry, Vision Science, Bioengineering, the Berkeley Institute of Design (BID), the Berkeley Center for New Media (BCNM), the Arts Research Center (ARC), and the Berkeley Canadian Studies Program. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Utah in Computer Science. His research interests include computational photography, contact lens design, computer methods for optometry and ophthalmology, image synthesis, computer aided geometric design and modeling, CAD/CAM/CIM, interactive and realistic three-dimensional computer graphics, visualization in scientific computing, computer aided cornea modeling and visualization, medical imaging, vision correcting displays, and virtual environments for surgical simulation.

Prof. Barsky became involved in this topic when his friend’s granddaughter was among the 346 people killed in the crashes. Prof. Barsky met with the head of the Aviation Accident Investigation Sub-Committee of the National Transportation Safety Committee of Indonesia in Jakarta to obtain first-hand the details of the first crash. He is in frequent contact with many engineers, pilots, and consumer advocates about this issue. Prof. Barsky has lectured globally on this topic. He was featured prominently in a recent Smithsonian documentary shown in the U.S. and U.K. His full-page op-ed in the Globe and Mail was discussed in the Parliament of Canada.

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