Canadian Science Policy Fellows’ Corner: Avoid the Terminator! Consider the ethical implications of disruptive technologies before it’s too late

New technologies have the potential to vastly influence everyday life. Sometimes, technological innovations are so powerful that they shake up the status quo. These are called disruptive technologies because they replace established products and practices, sometimes even leading to the creation of whole new industries.

Think for a moment about how owning a driverless car, a rapidly developing disruptive technology, might affect your life. How many more books could you read now that your morning commute doesn’t require you to pay attention to the road? How much more sleep might you get if you could snooze safely while your car drives you to the office? How many accidents could be prevented by removing the element of human error from driving? It’s easy to imagine such positive changes brought about by this one new technology. So perhaps it’s not surprising that disruptive technologies are of great interest not just to bookworms, sleep-lovers, and the safety-conscious, but also to those on the frontlines who generate new ideas that may turn into the next great disruptor, and to those working to ensure that the best ideas most likely to become game changers are properly funded and supported.

On Thursday afternoon at the Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC), disruptive technologies were front and centre in an exciting panel chaired by Dr. Paul Dufour, and featuring Drs. Foteini Agrafioti, Mo Elbestawi, Richard Hawkins, Michele Mosca, and Duncan Stewart. Ranging from academia to government to the entrepreneurial and business world, these panelists discussed the importance of supporting researchers and industry partners from the earliest stages, ensuring that potential disruptive technologies are identified when they arise in the laboratory, and developing creative ways to facilitate their adoption by the public.

Of course, there are challenges to accomplishing this. Dr. Mosca, reflecting on his experience in quantum computing, described the importance of early investors in potentially disruptive technology to ensure that they can be turned into opportunities for Canada. “It’s a matter of luck, sometimes”, he said, and without adopters, the fruits of disruptive technology research may go to waste. In fact, the fear of investing in potentially disruptive technology can be dangerous, and if Canada is not investing in the disruptive technology, we risk being disrupted by it instead. Dr. Agrafioti echoed these sentiments, describing her struggles as a young inventor of disruptive technology, and the difficulties of finding early support. Dr. Stewart proposed solutions, suggesting that the age of innovation is well suited to Canada’s strengths. He stressed the importance of multi-sector collaboration to advance disruptive technology development, including targeted government funding, public and private company collaboration, and civil society partnership, pointing to DARPA, Grand Challenges Canada, The Gates Foundation, and the X Prize as excellent models. Finally, Drs. Elbestawi and Hawkins reminded us of the role of university-industry collaboration, like that provided by Mitacs, and stressed the importance of designing university curricula that inform students of industry needs and allow them to gain competencies for effective industry partnership after graduation, and of challenging researchers to push the envelope. All in all, the panel discussion highlighted the wonderful opportunities that disruptive technologies can provide us with, and the importance of encouraging this innovation.

However, by virtue of their “disruptability,” these technologies can also have profound ethical and policy implications. To outline this, let’s return to our driverless car example. What age must one be to operate such a vehicle? Must operators have a driver’s license? Would laws around alcohol consumption and driving be different for these cars? What happens if a car must decide between veering off the road into the pathway of two adults to avoid hitting one small child, or braking suddenly and risking the life of the child if the car can’t stop fast enough? How are decisions like this made by a computer? Who is responsible for the outcome?

Since they can result in huge paradigm shifts, disruptive technologies are destined to pose challenges to our current policies, and they may lead to ethically questionable scenarios like those described above. It is imperative that we consider all of the possible ethical implications of adopting a new disruptive technology before adoption precisely because of the technology’s potential to change life so dramatically. Ideally, a consideration of ethics would inform policies regulating the use of a new disruptive technology. Better collaboration between academia, government, industry is, indeed, essential for innovation. But policy-makers must be equipped to make responsible decisions about novel technologies. This includes building strong frameworks for ethical assessment, fostering communication with scientists about potential risks, and effective early policy forecasting. Policy-makers must also be mindful that not all disruptive technology is good technology, and policy engagement from the early research stages should allow for a halt on the development of a potentially unethical product before it’s too late.

By ensuring that policies are informed by a robust assessment of the ethical implications of the use of specific disruptive technologies, we can rest assured that these technologies will do what they are intended to do: contribute to a better life for us.

This blog post was contributed to Mitacs. The views or opinions expressed within belong solely to the author and do not represent those of Mitacs or the institutions or organizations that the author may be associated with.

The Canadian Science Policy Fellowship is made possible thanks to Professor Sarah Otto, Department of Zoology, University of British Columbia; participating federal agencies and departments; the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society and Policy; and Mitacs’ Science Policy Fellowship Advisory Council.


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