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International research team to assess ethical and human rights impact of new technologies
Policy makers all over the world struggle to assess the ethical and human rights impact of new research in genetics and genomics, human enhancement, artificial intelligence and robotics. Researchers from four continents have teamed up in the SIENNA project to help improve existing ethical and legal frameworks. The project receives a financial contribution of just under €4 million from the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme.
It is difficult to predict the consequences of developing and using new technologies. We interact with robots, smart devices, intelligent software, prosthetics and implants in daily life. At the same time, new and improved technologies for genetic and genomic research are making their way from research to patients and consumers in the form of cheaper and more accessible tests and screening.
Today, we are closer to scenarios we could only have pictured in science fiction a few decades ago. Genetic diagnosis is not new. These tools have been used for decades to screen and test individuals and families with hereditary disorders. However, new gene editing tools that could help treat genetic diseases are on the horizon. At least in theory, this could be used to ‘design’ or modify specific genetic traits in humans. Similarly, education and exercise have long been understood as tools to enhance our abilities. Newly developed technologies promise a more specific and more effective way to enhancement. Advances in artificial intelligence and robotics could perhaps promise to fill jobs currently done by humans. Which, in turn, could affect what employers expect from their staff.
Practical and ethical questions
Who is accountable for the different uses that we make of new powerful research and technology? What kind of regulations should be in place and what concerns should they address? The SIENNA project sets the ground for ethical codes and recommendations to improve existing legal frameworks, bringing together researchers from Europe, Asia, Africa and America.
“The SIENNA project will examine the practical and ethical questions of what can and should be permitted in research and technological development. Our proposals will be based on ethical assessments that build on extensive consultations with international stakeholders and leading experts in genomics, human enhancement, AI & robotics. Together with surveys of public opinion and citizen panels, this will ensure outcomes that are relevant, well-supported and more likely to be implemented”, says Rowena Rodrigues, Senior Research Analyst at Trilateral Research and deputy coordinator of SIENNA.
The project also raises challenging philosophical questions. Where do we draw the line between health and illness? Cosmetic surgery for a burn victim is different from the same procedure for someone suffering from mild social distress. One is a treatment, one is considered enhancement. What do we expect from intelligent software in terms of morality? Are we willing to give up privacy to have our genome screened for genetic disorders, or our personal liberty to interact with machines?
Refine policies and ethical codes
Both the public and policy makers are concerned about these issues. In recent years, there have been numerous academic publications on the ethical and human rights issues of new and emerging technologies in genomics, enhancement and robotics. SIENNA takes a new and extended approach by looking at these areas together.
“SIENNA is the first project to undertake an extensive, international study of present and future ethical and human rights implications of genomics, enhancement and robotics, and how people feel about their use. We are also one of the first projects to work closely with organisations in science, industry and policy to refine policies and ethics codes for better development and use of the innovations from these fields”, says Philip Brey, Professor of Philosophy of Technology, University of Twente, and coordinator of SIENNA.
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