A blog from the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB)

Month: November 2020

Ethically responsible robot development

Development of new technologies sometimes draws inspiration from nature. How do plants and animals solve the problem? An example is robotics, where one wants to develop better robots based on what neuroscience knows about the brain. How does the brain solve the problem?

Neuroscience, in turn, sees new opportunities to test hypotheses about the brain by simulating them in robots. Perhaps one can simulate how areas of the brain interact in patients with Parkinson’s disease, to understand how their tremor and other difficulties are caused.

Neuroscience-inspired robotics, so-called neurorobotics, is still at an early stage. This makes neurorobotics an excellent area for being ethically and socially more proactive than we have been in previous technological developments. That is, we can already begin to identify possible ethical and social problems surrounding technological development and counteract them before they arise. For example, we cannot close our eyes to gender and equality issues, but must continuously reflect on how our own social and cultural patterns are reflected in the technology we develop. We need to open our eyes to our own blind spots!

You can read more about this ethical shift in technology development in an article in Science and Engineering Ethics (with Manuel Guerrero from CRB as one of the authors). The shift is called Responsible Research and Innovation, and is exemplified in the article by ongoing work in the European research project, Human Brain Project.

Not only neuroscientists and technology experts are collaborating in this project to develop neurorobotics. Scholars from the humanities and social sciences are also involved in the work. The article itself is an example of this broad collaboration. However, the implementation of responsible research and development is also at an early stage. It still needs to find more concrete forms of work that make it possible not only to anticipate ethical and social problems and reflect on them, but also to act and intervene to influence scientific and technological development.

From being a framework built around research and development, ethics is increasingly integrated into research and development. Read the article if you want to think about this transition to a more reflective and responsible technological development.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Aicardi, C., Akintoye, S., Fothergill, B.T. et al. Ethical and Social Aspects of Neurorobotics. Sci Eng Ethics 26, 2533–2546 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-020-00248-8

This post in Swedish

Approaching future issues

Trapped in a system

Suppose a philosopher builds a system of ideas based on our mortality. It is the risk of dying, the vulnerability of all things in life, that allows us to find our lives meaningful and our life projects engaging. If we did not believe in the risk of dying and the vulnerability of all things in life, we would not care about anything at all. Therefore, we must believe what the system requires, in order to live meaningfully and be caring. In fact, everyone already believes what the system requires, argues the philosopher, even those who question it. They do it in practice, because they live committed and caring lives. This would be impossible if they did not believe what the system requires.

However, our mortality is more than a risk. It is a fact: we will die. Death is not just a possibility, something that can happen, a defeat we risk in our projects. What happens when we see the reality of death, instead of being trapped in the system’s doctrines about necessary conditions for the possibility of meaningful and committed lives? We can, of course, close our eyes and refuse to think more about it. However, we can also start thinking like never before. If I am going to die, I have to understand life before I die! I have to investigate! I have to reach clarity while I live!

In this examination of the starting point of the system, a freer thinking comes to life, which wonders rather than issues demands. What is it to live? Who am I, who say that I have a life? How did “I” and “my life” meet? Are we separate? Are we a unity? Is life limited by birth and death? Or is life extended, including the alternations between birth and death? What is life really? The small, which is limited by birth and death, or the large, which includes the alternations between birth and death? Or both at the same time? These are perhaps the first preliminary questions…

The mortality on which the system is based raises passionate questions about the concepts with which the system operates as if they had been carved in stone for eternity. It gives birth to a self-questioning life, which does not allow itself to be subdued by the system’s doctrines about what we must believe. Even the system itself is questioned, because the passion that animates the questioning is as great as the system would like to be.

However, if the questioning cares passionately about life, if mortality and vulnerability are part of the commitment – does the system thereby get in the last word?

(This post is inspired by Martin Hägglund’s book, This Life, which I recommend as a great stumbling stone for our time.)

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

This post in Swedish

We like challenging questions