Meet Tomorrow’s World: A Meeting on the Ethics of Emerging Technologies
|Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The second talk, delivered by Dr. Kate Darling, research specialist at the MIT Media Lab, focused on the near-term effects of robotic technology, with a particular interest in their legal, social, and ethical issues. Her analysis took a first step from the common observation that people often treat robots like they are alive, despite consciously knowing that they are not living beings in any significant sense. A paradigmatic example is the confirmed report of soldiers having held funerals for fallen robots. The reason for that, Darling argued, presumably stems from the fact that robots embody physicality and movement, two qualities that are essential to animated beings. This phenomenon shows that robots can also be effectively used for supporting empathic activities such as therapy, assistance and social interaction. However, Dr. Darling also anticipated possible risks associated with robotics-assisted activities, in particular the risk that such engaging technologies may become manipulative technologies. This risk appears particularly relevant in the context of using anthropomorphic, or at least animalomorphic, assistive robotics for people with neurocognitive disabilities, including Paro and iCat. Due to their cognitive impairments, users of these technologies may lack the capacity to discern the robotic nature of these devices, and hence fail to draw the line between the biophysical and in-silico world.
VR and assistive robotics not only raise the risk of eroding our awareness of the physical-digital distinction, but raise privacy and identity concerns, too. In fact, emerging technologies can also be used to collect personal data and even influence a person’s behavior. These privacy risks were well exemplified by Jay Giedd, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego. He introduced the notion of “penetration technology” to refer to the phenomenon where technology advances faster than society can adapt in terms of governance and regulation. For example, he reported that the number of events in which people participate on Facebook was demonstrated to be a good predictor of depression. However, he observed that conducting big-data research on large volumes of publicly available information on social media opens up fundamental research ethics dilemmas. In particular, there is an ethical issue of privacy and confidentiality: is a person’s informational privacy respected if researchers mine data from his or her social media profile without explicit authorization? On the one hand, the answer to this question seems to be affirmative because that information was posted publicly by the user and after acceptance of the social media’s terms and conditions. On the other hand, however, no explicit request for the acquisition of informed consent was advanced by the researchers. In parallel, neuroscientist and entrepreneur Vivienne Ming emphasized the positive dimension of such big-data trends: although collecting large volumes of data for research purposes may be questionable from a privacy perspective, it can also be extremely beneficial for science and society. Going back to Giedd’s example, the application of predictive analytics techniques to large volumes of social media data might predict depression or a manic episode, possibly saving lives that could not be saved otherwise.
|Image courtesy of Jisc
These critical ethical questions were further analyzed in depth by Dr. Hannah Maslen and Prof. Julian Savulescu of the University of Oxford. Dr. Maslen called for an open debate on determining the principles that should govern the use of health technology in educational contexts. She introduced the idea of a child’s “right to future openness” to emphasize the duty of parents to keep a sufficient number of options open for their children. Moving from the educational context to a larger societal perspective, Prof. Savulescu underlined the role of human morality in enabling social interaction within groups. From his perspective, technology can be coopted as an efficient tool to achieve these prosocial goals, particularly if it is used to provide cognitive and moral enhancement both at the individual and collective level. Such enhancement, however, may cause structural transformations to critical aspects of our modern societies, including the political dimension.