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With Big Tech comes Big (Ethical) Responsibility

Author

Laura Galante

Oct 6, 2023

In a world pervaded by the rapid entrance and development of new technologies, the pace at which ethical concerns are addressed is not always in sync. TechEthos, a Horizon 2020 project, wants to facili-tate “ethics-by-design” in order to push forward ethical and societal values into the design and develop-ment of new and emerging technologies at the very beginning of the process.

TechEthos aims to produce ethical guidelines that can provide orientation for technology developers in the early stages of development. We spoke with project coordinator and innovation policy expert Eva Buchinger and foresight expert Wenzel Mehnert about their considerations on the outcomes and process of their project. Both are working at the Austrian Institute of Technology.

 

How does strategic foresight fit into the work of the TechEthos project?

Wenzel: Strategic foresight is about defining or creating knowledge to orientate actions in the present. If we want to develop innovation of new and emerging technologies responsibly, we need some kind of knowledge or guidelines to orientate our action. I think here TechEthos plays an important role as it creates those guidelines.

 

Eva: Strategic foresight in the case of TechEthos contributes to ensuring high interest in ethical standards in the EU and beyond. Thus, we want to help reinforce the pivotal role of the European Union as an ethical trailblazer. Reconciling the needs of research and innovation and the concerns of society and reflecting them in ethics guidelines is essential for TechEthos’ strategic approach.

 

Why should these vital concerns be at the forefront of technology design?

Wenzel: New and emerging technologies always create new opportunities, such as generating wealth or general socio-economic benefits. However, they also present potential ethical challenges or unintended social consequences. In the context of disruptive technologies, there are always people who benefit from these technologies but also those who will lose. This is why we need to reflect on how to achieve a positive societal outcome. One way to do this is by constructing scenarios with stakeholders, thinking about positive visions. But often, these visions vary from one stakeholder to another.

 

Tell us about your guidelines and to whom they are targeted.

Eva: In TechEthos, we analyse existing ethical guidelines and frameworks and provide suggestions for their enhancement. We specifically focussed on guidelines related to TechEthos’ technologies - climate engineering, digital extend realities, neurotechnologies – and selected two guidelines per tech, which are in the process of enhancement that we are now finalising. Concerning target groups, TechEthos is a CSA (coordination and support action) and so it was clear from the beginning that we had to deliver orientation for EU policy makers. Another target group are research ethics bodies organised in institutions such as the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities (ALLEA) and the European Network of Research Ethics Committees (EUREC), both partners in TechEthos. However, our main target group are researchers from industry and academics.

 

Wenzel: Another interesting target group are citizens. Because these technologies are still relatively new, but will impact society at large, citizens become crucial stakeholders. Therefore, it’s important to communicate these new and emerging technologies to citizen groups and also incorporate their concerns, which we have done in TechEthos.

 

You have chosen to focus on three technologies: climate engineering, neurotechnologies, and extended reality. Why have you selected these technology families in particular?

Eva: Our task during the first six months of the project was to select three technology families which raise ethical issues and have a high socioeconomic impact. Through a horizon scan we identified 150 technologies and narrowed them down to 3 with the involvement of 77 experts. Climate engineering, representing a branch of technologies from carbon dioxide removal to solar radiation management; digital extended reality, covering technologies related to the metaverse as well as natural language processing; and neurotechnologies, directly monitoring, assessing, and manipulating the brain’s function. During the development of this project, the emerging discussions on ChatGPT and the most recent UN conferences on climate change confirmed the relevance of TechEthos’ technology selection.

 

What was the purpose of your TechEthos game?

Wenzel: When engaging with citizens you need a low threshold activity that does not ask for too much knowledge or preparation. We created the TechEthos game that puts the players in the position of a fictitious Citizen World Council. The citizens were presented with one technology and had to decide which they want to support or not. The power of this game is that it really stimulates discussion right from the first card. At the end, we engaged with 330 participants, of which one third represented vulnerable groups. The transcripts of the conversations were then coded for “citizen values”, which become important when addressing new emerging technologies, and which have been included in the guideline enhancement.

 

What were some of the most striking concerns that key stakeholders had in devising these scenarios?

Eva: One striking concern from the expert engagement in scenarios was that “technological fixes” must be balanced with fair social reforms. Citizens especially highlighted the values “equity”, “reliability” and “sustainability” against a media discourse that tends to utilise catchwords such as “cyborgs”, “green hydrogen” and “virtual reality”. Research ethics committees also emphasised the necessity of guidance documents for an ethics review based on pertinent principles. And it was also interesting to realise in the policy consultation that in the legal framing, the definitions for a legal treatment are sometimes very weak which makes implementation difficult.

 

In an ideal world, how would you expect the future of emerging technologies to develop in the next 20 years?

Eva: First of all, we have to take care that technology serves humanity and not vice versa. This has to be done by the interplay of various stakeholders; while we are witnessing how industry is shaping and paving the way, we have to take care that we implement proper regulation. In the next two decades we may expect technology driven disruptions around the world and in an ideal world this will become a win-win-win situation for producers, users, and nature on global scale.

 

Wenzel: I hope that reflexive innovation becomes the new normal, and that involving relevant stakeholders becomes a paradigm in the development process of technologies. In TechEthos we aim at policy makers, but in an ideal world, there is an open involvement of all types of stakeholders into the technology development process.

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