Inside the Classroom: Ethics and Emerging Technologies
Technology shapes almost every aspect of our lives—the spaces we inhabit, how we interact with each other and nature, and the way we do our jobs and take our recreation. Moreover, because the rate of technological change is so fast, it drives social and cultural change more than any other factor. Emerging technologies also often raise controversial moral issues regarding such things as privacy (information technologies), mixing species (genetically modified organisms) and creating novel forms of life (synthetic biology). For these reasons, understanding the human situation in the modern world requires attending to and reflecting on emerging technologies.
This past Spring I had the great please of discussing the ethical dimensions of emerging technologies with an outstanding group of Honors students. The course began with an overview of key thinkers about the relationship between technology, society and nature—for example, Hans Jonas, Landon Winner and Aldo Leopold. Each of these philosophers emphasizes that technology is not just a tool that we use to do things; it also configures our experiences, and thereby how we think about the world and ourselves. For example, information technologies (such as the internet and wireless communications) have made entirely new forms of socialization possible (e.g. social networking and virtual reality) and have decoupled social interaction from geographic proximity. We no longer need to be near each other in order to be social with each other. As a result, what constitutes a socially rich life, as well as the skills necessary for social success, are quite different now from what they were 10 or 20 years ago. Information technologies have also changed our expectations about when and how quickly we should be able to reach each other, and our beliefs about which information is and should be private. So, while it is true that we use information technologies for our purposes, it is also true that these technologies have impacted and changes us in profound ways.
This understanding of technology—that it shapes us as much as we shape it—is the perspective from which the course preceded. We used it to identify, analyze and discuss the ethical dimensions of a broad range of emerging technologies: synthetic biology, artificial intelligence, robotics, geoengineering, virtual reality, information technologies, and human enhancement. We discussed controversial ethical issues raised by these technologies, how the technologies might change the ways in which we live, and what responsible development of them would require.
A favorite part of the course among the students was the focus on current scientific and technological events. At the start of each class students brought in news items related to the themes of the course for discussion and analysis. This ensured that we were engaging cutting edge science and technology, and it enabled us to discuss an even broader range of technologies—for example, 3-D printing, regenerative medicine, nanomaterials, and invisibility devices (really). We also had the opportunity to have Stephen Lang (the Colonel from Avatar) visit our class as part of Northeastern’s Artist-in-Residence program. He spoke to us about how technological innovation had transformed not only the practice of acting, but also the movie industry more generally.
Teaching a course on such an interesting topic with so highly capable and engaged students was both rewarding and good fun. I am looking forward to doing it again next year.