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Posted: Dec 14, 2010

Where ethics and technology collide

(Nanowerk News) The conference "Converging technologies: Body, Brain and Being", which took place at the Institute of Information Science in Maribor (Slovenia) in May 2010, was dedicated to the emergence of converging technologies. Emphasis was placed on AmI (ambient intelligence), which, as an emerging technology which bring about ethical considerations and become an integral part of the development cycle.
The EGAIS (Ethical GovernAnce of emergIng technologieS) project will define the ethical framework used to link the theoretical, practical and governing perspectives of developing high technologies together.
Information and communication technology (ICT) improves our lives in various means such as long-distance communication, everyday tasks and quality of life for people with special needs.
It also contributes towards individuals' safety and strengthens societal cohesion. Yet, at the same time, it constantly reminds us of Orwellian dystopia: total control over the individual.
ICT also unveils a number of other ethical questions, such as access to the technologies, adaptability to human needs, effect on freedom of speech and autonomy. As a rule, these questions are only raised once the technology is already in use. It is crucial to consider if such situations can be predicted in the planning stages.
Technological development projects generally neglect this and only remember ethics after the fact, and on an ad-hoc basis.
Guidelines that would train developers to study the ethical consequences of evolving technologies methodically are missing. In the case of ICT, this may come as a surprise if we consider that the pioneers of computing had vehemently warned us about the breach of modern technologies into thought processes and social processes. What more, decisions made about research public funding development projects are facing increasingly harsher criticism from taxpayers. Taxpayers are dissatisfied with the negative ethical impacts.
Financiers now have two options: stop funding such projects, or demand from project leaders that the ethical aspect is considered and studied.
Taking ethical aspects into account when developing modern technologies is anything but easy. The first issue stems from the century-old separation between natural/technical sciences and social/humanistic studies. Researchers rarely speak both "languages" and even if we try to force both of these spheres into one project, this usually results in a situation where the differences in terminology and method makes the conversation impossible to comprehend for both parties.
Secondly, the issue is "ideology" protruding into research studies, as ethics is a "soft" science, not immune to such infestations, whereas in "hard" technical sciences, such influences are rarely perceptible. The third issue stems from the increasing complexity of omnipresent modern technologies, which in turn makes it difficult for the majority of people to develop the critical distance towards them.
The conference in Maribor has strongly backed EGAIS' basis that demands an interdisciplinary approach in the planning phase of technological projects. The separation of technical teams and ethics teams cannot lead any project to success. This much is clear, but as described, the question of how to establish cooperation is a lot less clear. EGAIS will offer the approach of ethical governance based on higher-order reflexivity.
The conference Converging technologies: Body, Brain and Being is neither the first nor the last initiated by the EGAIS project. It opens up a lot of though-provoking issues, for which both experts and laymen wish to face critically. By causing this, one of the goals of EGAIS has already been reached.
Source: Cordis
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