27 Apr Experimenting with the ethics of science and technology
Let me ask you a question…
Is it ethically better that 50% of all chicks go to a shredder (or are buried alive) because they are male and therefore don’t produce eggs, or that we genetically modify chickens to reduce the likelihood of male chicks, thereby reducing the kill rate and improving egg production efficiency?
Or is it wrong that we have reached a point in our own existence where these questions are being asked at all?
This paper is about the ethics of science and technology and our unquestioning appetite for the improved life they offer us.
What’s the true cost of technology?
There’s no doubting technology, and the science behind it, plays a huge part in our lives. It’s transformed the human race. How we behave. How we work. How we communicate. How we travel…
Where would we be without the internet, mobile phones, tinned food, the malaria vaccine or penicillin? There’s an endless list of innovations that have made our lives better. But there’s an equally long list for those that have killed and harmed people, animals and the environment.
In this paper we examine the role of science and technology, look at some current ‘ethical’ examples, question who owns the ethics of science and technology, and ask what happens when things go too far.
What is the purpose of science and technology?
We could get very deep and philosophical here, but we won’t. Having said that, and to give some context, here’s a definition of ‘science and technology’: ‘Science encompasses the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment, and technology is the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes.’.
Science and technology have helped the human race develop. Notably, at a considerable pace over the last 100 years or so. It’s saved countless lives. Given us instant access to unlimited amounts of information. Brought us clean water. And so much more.
Unfortunately, there are just as many technologies that have a negative impact. This is often the case because a vast amount of tech is designed for military purposes. Some with lethal consequences. Other military tech is evolved to ‘benefit’ consumers and businesses, such as the internet, GPS, microwave, computers, drones, and the jet engine.
We frequently look at the amazing innovations that make our lives simpler, more enjoyable and comfortable through rose-tinted glasses. It’s only when you peer beyond the shiny facade of the tech that all is not what it seems.
This is where the lines of scientific discovery and technological advancement, to better understand our world and help humans, blurs with a corporate and political world in search of profit and power.
How ‘good’ is science and technology?
So much tech clearly benefits our lives. Yet look at each piece through ethical eyes, and the waters soon become muddier. Below are just a couple of examples.
Is 5G good for business but bad for your health?
The 5G phone network was launched in several UK cities in 2019. It’s set to be rolled out across many others in 2020. It’s much faster than 3G and 4G. And has greater capacity, allowing more phones in the same area to be connected at the same time.
5G offers so many possibilities. Drones can communicate with one another on search and rescue missions. Robotic surgeons can be operated remotely. Manufacturers can control machinery from anywhere in the world.
However, there are health concerns around 5G and the electromagnetic radiation it produces, which has been linked to cancer. And it doesn’t stop there. 5G could be contributing to the demise of our insect population. This will affect the human race too, due to the knock-on effect to the eco-system and food chain.
Many governments, including the UK’s, say 5G is safe. Public Heath England (PHE) states: ‘The overall exposure is expected to remain low relative to guidelines and, as such, there should be no consequences for public health.’. Yet other countries, including Switzerland, have halted the roll-out of 5G due to health concerns. People have even taken to burning 5G mobile phone masts due to (currently unfounded) fears it was spreading COVID-19.
So are some governments putting economic prosperity before public health? Would you feel guilty using a 5G network – knowing it might be harming those around you?
There are other ethical dilemmas too. The 5G network requires vast amounts of energy, more than we can produce through renewables. New devices and systems are needed, contributing to the amount of electronic waste we produce. The digital divide between rural areas and urban areas will deepen further. So how good is 5G really?
Discover more in our blog: Will 5G benefit you and have the health concerns been answered?
How much is that doggy in the window? About $50k if you want it cloned.
Animal cloning isn’t new. Dolly the sheep was the first mammal to be successfully cloned in 1996. She lived for just under seven years. The life expectancy for her breed is 10–12 years. Although, there were claims her death was nothing to do with her being a clone.
Since then, many other mammals such as horses, pigs and goats have been cloned. Now, you can even get your cat or dog cloned. For a mere $25k–$50k. However, there are no guarantees it will look or behave like your old one.
Forgetting about the cost, what about the ethics behind it? And not just the mass debate surrounding ‘cloning’. The host animals that gestate the dog and cat clones have pretty miserable lives. Plus, there’s all the other homeless cats and dogs that could be saved instead.
We’re a nation of pet lovers. It would be great to have your dog by your side until you die. But could you live with the ethics behind pet cloning?
Take another look at AI surveillance.
There’s been a huge rise in the use of artificial intelligence (AI) surveillance in recent years. Not just by autocratic states like China and Russia. Advanced democracies, like the UK, are adopting the technology too. Alongside the many global corporations (Amazon, Facebook and Google) who use it for financial gain.
AI surveillance cameras have proven to be highly effective at combatting terrorism and domestic crime. The technology has advanced so much, it can self-learn (no pre-programmed reference material needed), to even predict in advance when crimes might occur.
There are lots of other advantages of AI surveillance too. For consumers and businesses. Reduced traffic congestion. Fridges that order food for you. And increased retail sales thanks to monitoring of browsing patterns.
During the current COVID-19 pandemic, Google is offering to share people’s travel movements, because it believes: ‘This information could help officials understand changes in essential trips that can shape recommendations on business hours or inform delivery service offerings.’. Although they say the data will be anonymised, the BBC’s technology correspondent, Rory Cellan-Jones, commented: ‘The data may prove startling to people who are unaware of just how much information Google collects.’.
So how much is AI surveillance affecting our privacy and civil liberties? Sure, we willingly sign up to free services like Amazon and Facebook, yet do we really know what they are doing with the vast volumes of data they’re harvesting? Do we care?
Discover more in our blog: Keeping watch on AI surveillance.
Who owns the ethics of science and technology?
Not everyone has a strong moral compass. So just being reliant on self-regulation of ethics in science and technology isn’t practical. So where does the buck stop?
It could end where it starts. These are the people doing the research that leads to the development of new technologies. If they foresee it could become unethical, should they halt their work? Even if it means destroying decades of research?
Inventors and entrepreneurs?
Lots do consider humans, animals and the environment. But there are just as many (if not more), prepared to sacrifice ethics in pursuit of profit.
Governments and regulators?
Can we trust the politicians and lawmakers to do the right thing to protect the public? Maybe. But they are often driven by economic stability/growth and power. They aren’t immune to corruption or experts on these subjects either. So should they be making such important critical decisions?
The general public?
Consumer power is hugely influential. There has been a huge shift towards more ethical products and services in recent years. But like governments, the public isn’t informed and knowledgeable enough about tech ethics.
Founded following the atrocities of World War II, UNESCO plays a key role in promoting equality, fairness and: ‘seek to build peace through international cooperation in Education, the Sciences and Culture.’. They’ve even set up a dedicated advisory committee and forum: The World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST).*
But who is supporting all the other countries who aren’t members of the UN? Are UN Member States complying with UNESCO rules and guidance? And if other similar organisations are created, who decides who is in charge of them?
And the answer is…
There’s no obvious answer to ‘who owns the ethics of science and technology?’ Many scientific agencies and large tech firms have their own internal ‘ethics owners’. But how impartial are they? An article by Harvard Business Review highlights this: ‘The central challenge ethics owners are grappling with is negotiating between external pressures to respond to ethical crises at the same time that they must be responsive to the internal logic of their companies and the industry.’ Ultimately, it comes down to the bottom line. And when money is added to the equation, sometimes ethics get subtracted.
What happens when the ethics of science and technology get pushed too far?
How far is too far? This is a big problem. Every person has different moral and ethical values. To some, abortion is unacceptable. To others, having nuclear weapons as a deterrent is fine. This is why controlling ethics, and knowing what is ‘too far’, is so difficult.
Genetically modified (GM) chickens are another example. Normally about 50% of chickens are born male. Most of them are killed because they don’t lay eggs (through starvation, suffocation or just buried alive). So scientists developed GM chickens where only 1% were born male. Ethically, are we better off with or without GM chickens?
Profit and power are other crucial factors. There are many companies, and governments, that push the ethical boundaries, cross them and even break laws. Yet as they are the people at the top, when something ‘unethical’ is developed, it’s often swept under the carpet. Nothing happens.
In advanced democracies, we have press freedom and the right to demonstrate. This enables us to highlight and make an ethical stand against science and technology if we believe it’s gone too far. And it does work. People and the press can sway opinion and instrument change. The many anti-hunting demonstrations over the years lead to the Hunting Act (2004), which banned the hunting of wild mammals with dogs in England and Wales.
An ethical dilemma.
The ethics of science and technology has been debated for centuries. And it will be for many more to come. Because there is no definitive answer. Only opinions. If you have any on the subject, please share them with us.
* The eagle-eyed will have spotted the acronym for the World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST) doesn’t add up. It was taken from the French name ‘Commission mondiale d’éthique des connaissances scientifiques et des technologies’. Even then, there’s a bit of artistic licence.