New Report Explores the Ethics of Digital eXtended Reality, Neurotechnologies, and Climate Engineering

TechEthos project publishes two analyses of the ethics and laws applicable to the three technology families under study

In June 2022, TechEthos (Ethics for Technologies with High Socio-Economic Impact), a Horizon 2020-funded project, published a draft report on the ethical issues that need to be considered for the three technology families under study:

  • Digital eXtended Reality, including the techniques of visually eXtended Reality (XR) and the techniques of Natural Language Processing (NLP)
  • Neurotechnologies
  • Climate Engineering, including Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) and Solar Radiation Management (SRM)

The report, co-authored by tech ethicist Laurynas Adomaitis and physicist Alexei Grinbaum at the Commissariat à l’Énergie Atomique et aux Énergies Alternatives (CEA), along with Dominic Lenzi from the University of Twente (TU), is currently under review by the European Commission. It is based on literature studies, original research, expert consultation, and digital ethnographies.

TechEthos

Source: TechEthos Report on the Analysis of Ethical Issues

In addition to briefly describing the technologies in each family, the report identifies core ethical dilemmas, describes key applications and case studies, and identifies ethical values and principles in line with the “ethics by design” (the implementation of ethical, legal, and societal values and principles from the conception to implementation stages of technology design) methodology, provides operational checks and balances for each value/principle in the form of questions, and outlines mitigations strategies for the same.

The 142-page report is structured into four chapters, which include an introduction into technology ethics and cross-cutting issues in the three technology families, and a deep-dive into each one. Some examples of the ethical issues unique to the different technologies include:

  • The impact of digital eXtended Reality on the values and principles of transparency, dignity, privacy, non-manipulation, and responsibility, as well as their relevance for the analysis of risk reduction, environmental impact, dual use and misuse, gender bias, and power and labour relations
  • The lack of human-like reasoning or understanding in NLP systems, spontaneous anthropomorphisation of chatbots, and the influence of artificial emotions on human users
  • The impact of neurotechnologies on the values and principles of autonomy, responsibility, privacy, risk reduction, and informed consent
  • The potential for less costly, but less effective climate engineering solutions to divert resources away from more sustainable, but more expensive initiatives
  • The potential for climate engineering to be more wasteful

Beyond the well-researched and in-depth analysis of the conceptual arguments, there are also helpful use cases and questions that stakeholders can ask when dealing with the ethics of the technologies in each family.

Analysis of international and EU law and policy applied to Digital eXtended Reality, Neurotechnologies, and Climate Engineering

In July 2022, following the analysis of the ethical dilemmas inherent to each technology family studied by TechEthos, a second draft report was published, which delved into the international and EU laws and policies for their relevance and applicability to Digital eXtended Reality, Neurotechnologies, and Climate Engineering. Although there is no dedicated EU or international law governing these three technology families, there do exist several legal frameworks that could be applied to them.

The report serves to review these legal domains and related obligations at international and EU levels, identifies the potential implications for fundamental rights and principles of democracy and rule of law, and reflects on issues and challenges of existing legal frameworks to address current and future implications of the technologies. The 242-page report covers human rights law, rules on state responsibility, environmental law, climate law, space law, law of the seas, and the law related to artificial intelligence (AI), digital services and data governance, among others as they apply to the three technology families.

The report was co-authored by Nicole Santiago, Ben Howkins, Julie Vinders, Rowena Rodrigues, and Zuzanna Warso from Trilateral Research (TRI), Michael Bernstein from the AIT Austrian Institute of Technology, and Gustavo Gonzalez and Andrea Porcari from the Associazione Italiana per la Ricerca Industriale (Airi). It aims to present an evidence base for the TechEthos project’s development of recommendations for policy and legal reform, and is currently being reviewed by the European Commission.

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TechEthos is led by AIT Austrian Institute of Technology and will be carried out by a team of ten scientific institutions and six science engagement organisations from 13 European countries over a three-year period. ALLEA is a partner in the consortium of this project and will contribute to enhancing existing legal and ethical frameworks, ensuring that TechEthos outputs are in line with and may complement future updates to The European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity.

ALLEA Welcomes Council Conclusions on Research Assessment and Open Science

ALLEA welcomes the adoption of the Conclusions on Research Assessment and Implementation of Open Science by the Council of the European Union on 10 June. See ALLEA’s full response here.

The Conclusions are in agreement with points that ALLEA has made over the years, in particular on the necessity of appropriately implementing and rewarding open science practices and the development of research assessment criteria that follow principles of excellence, research integrity and trustworthy science.

At the same time, ALLEA continues to stress that it matters how we open knowledge, as the push for Open Access publishing has also paved the way for various unethical publishing practices. The inappropriate use of journal- and publication-based metrics in funding, hiring and promotion decisions has been one of the obstacles in the transition to a more open science, and furthermore fails to recognize and reward the diverse set of competencies, activities, and outputs needed for our research ecosystem to flourish.

ALLEA therefore welcomes the principles set out in the Conclusion for designing novel approaches to research assessment, with particular weight on recognizing (1) the critical role for peer review in research assessment and (2) the importance of integrity and ethics in developing criteria focused on quality and impact. 

ALLEA underscores that the described reforms are urgently needed and require concerted efforts from the international academic community, supported by infrastructures for exchanging best practices as well as the necessary financial resources to implement these. 

Read ALLEA’s full response

ALLEA Joins the European Commission Coalition on Research Assessment Reform

ALLEA has joined the European Commission’s core group working on reforming research assessment. The group will support the drafting of an agreement led by the European University Association, Science Europe and the European Commission on key issues and timelines for implementing changes.

The coalition is composed by funding organisations, research performing organisations, national/regional assessment authorities or agencies, associations of research funders, of research performers, of researchers, as well as learned societies and other relevant organisations.

ALLEA is represented by Deborah Oughton, member of the ALLEA Permanent Group Science and Ethics and representative of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. She is a Professor at the Environmental Sciences and Natural Resource Management Faculty of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences.

Towards a Research Assessment Reform

In 2021, the European Commission published the scoping report ‘Towards a reform of the research assessment system’. The publication presents the findings from a consultation with European research stakeholders and identifies the goals that should be pursued with a reform of research assessment. The report proposes a coordinated approach based on principles and actions that could be agreed upon by a coalition of research funding and research performing organisations committed to implement changes.

Research assessment reform is one of the topics ALLEA has worked jointly with its Member Academies and partners in recent years. In July 2021, ALLEA and the Global Young Academy (GYA) published a report covering the key takeaways of their webinar ‘Research Assessments that Promote Scholarly Progress and Reinforce the Contract with Society’. The event brought together science and policy stakeholders to rethink current research assessment models.

The key areas for research assessment identified by the stakeholders were how to strike a balance between funding of research to advance scientific progress and public accountability, how to assess the societal relevance of research and who defines the criteria, and how research assessment should be done.

In 2020, ALLEA, the Global Young Academy and STM (International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers) organised a series of workshops about the future of peer review in scholarly communications. A short summary report is available here.