Ethics of Technological and Biomedical Innovation, 2019-2021

The political, economic, and social conditions we live in are increasingly shaped by the design of the technologies we interact with on a daily basis. Even though modern computing technology has been widely available to private organizations and citizens only since the 1980s, it has already had profound effects on how we work, socialize, and govern ourselves. These changes have been accelerating in recent years due to a series of breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and robotics. Autonomous systems are now sophisticated enough to perform many tasks that previously would have required the exercise of skilled human judgment. As a result, public and private organizations are increasingly offloading important decision-making tasks to these systems in such various domains as criminal justice, banking, health care, education, communications, and defense. This new technology can help achieve some of our public / social goals, but the availability of an enormous amount of data on all human activity leaves us vulnerable. There are dangers ranging from the perpetuation of bias in algorithmic reasoning and the lack of algorithmic accountability to the use of technology to create “alternative facts.” We must also worry about such issues as data privacy and ownership of data, the increasing power and reach of tech companies of all kinds, tech “solutionism,” and problems with tech addiction and monoculture. And the rapidly changing nature of work threatens to exacerbate reductions in social mobility as inequalities rise.

In the spheres of biotechnology and bioethics, we face related challenges with direct human and societal consequences. Machine learning is increasingly driving decision-making about health and giving rise to new “predictive” approaches to health care but the complexities are so vast that such “block-box” medicine cannot yet be embraced without ethical scrutiny alongside further research to determine efficacy. Nor is there consensus yet about the appropriate use of, and protection for, data and biological specimens. Biotechnology also holds the promise of eradicating diseases before they come into existence through germline editing, and yet scientists are not at the point of accurately gauging the safety or precision of genomic manipulation. Geneticists hope that technology will soon allow us to address some of the great scourges of the developing world, vastly increase the efficiency of crop production, and reduce world hunger. Yet these efforts would come with many risks and raise questions about who decides whether the risks are worth taking, and who should bear the consequences if the risks materialize. How might biomedical innovation affect racial formations and identities? Should we use gene-editing technologies, if adequately developed, only to cure diseases or also to enhance normal functioning? And how might we assure that such enhancements are distributed fairly, such that they do not exacerbate existing wealth-based discrepancies in opportunity? On the other hand, we must also question whether the regulatory environment is stifling innovation, as excessive caution and over-regulation could halt important advancements.

The potential impacts that fast-paced innovation in the scientific, medical and technological fields will have on the human experience demand rigorous multi-disciplinary attention and collaboration among academics, scientists, innovators and policy-makers. Our goal for the two years under this theme was to craft a conversation that would help us deepen our collective understanding of the short- and long-term issues emerging at the intersections of ethics, human rights, technology, and the frontiers of the biomedical and biotechnology sectors. We were especially interested in questions of access to these innovations and impacts on the health and welfare of vulnerable populations.