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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.

How to Integrate Ethics into the Design of Disruptive Technologies

Eva Buchinger – TechEthos coordinator, AIT

Bioengineering, virtual reality, autonomous systems and many other technologies enter into society and our daily lives with the potential to radically transform our work, health, environment, and even our privacy and personal interactions. To reconcile the needs of research and innovation and the concerns and aspirations of society, ethical and societal considerations should be grafted onto the thinking of research and development practices.

TechEthos is an EU-funded project that seeks to create ethics guidelines to deal with this type of new and emerging technologies with a high socio-economic impact. Eva Buchinger (Austrian Institute of Technology, AIT) is the lead coordinator of the project. In this interview, she presents the key concepts tackled by TechEthos and its expected impact. The project started in January 2021 and will run until the end of 2023. 

 

Question: What are the aims and rationale of the TechEthos project? 

Eva Buchinger: TechEthos aims to facilitate “ethics by design”, namely, to bring ethical and societal values into the design and development of new and emerging technologies from the very beginning of the process. The project will provide ethics guidelines for 3-4 selected technologiesTo reconcile the needs of research and innovation and the concerns of society, the project will explore the awareness, acceptance and aspirations of academia, industry and the general public alike.   

TechEthos aims to facilitate “ethics by design”.

Q.: What kind of technologies are you looking at and why? Can you give one example and describe why their ethics dimensions are so significant?

E. B.: We will be looking at new and emerging technologies with a high socio-economic impact and significant ethics dimensions. That is, part of our work will be identifying technologies that are socially, economically and ethically (potentially) disruptive.  

“Disruption” is thereby understood as a generic term, referring to a significant change, may it be positive or negative. We will decide which high-impact technologies we will focus on in TechEthos at the end of the project’s first phase in July 2021. This decision will be informed by a horizon scanning process consisting of a meta-analysis combined with an expertbased impact assessment. We will consider a broad set of technologies ranging from bioengineering to cognitive technologies and smart materials.  

As for now, TechEthos understands the “ethics dimension” as relating to fundamental principles such as human rights, privacy and autonomy as well as specific concerns related to health, environment and human interactions.

Q.: What kind of impact does the project expect to have for policy and the research community?

E. B.: TechEthos is explicitly designed to serve researchers from academia and industry, research ethics committees and research integrity bodies, and governance agents such as standardization bodies, regulators, and policymakers. This will be achieved by developing operational guidelines and codes and other ethical toolsengaging in the process with a wide range of ethical codes and guidelines for the target technologies that currently exist. This will serve as the basis for constructive interpretation and guide the determination of how to enhance existing frameworks or supplement existing practices with new guidelines.  

The goal is to create a set of principles that are action-oriented for the above-mentioned users. Given the wide range of possible technologies, it is impossible to fully anticipate how the various codes or guidelines will be constructed in advance. However, the methodology we are adopting is sufficiently flexible to accommodate a variety of scenarios. 

TechEthos is explicitly designed to serve researchers, ethics bodies, and policymakers.

Q.: Who is involved and why is this the best consortium to achieve the project’s aims? 

E. B.: The TechEthos consortium benefits from the diversity of its partners as well as approaches. The project consists of ten scientific partners and six science engagement organisations representing 14 countries from all over Europe. The project will additionally involve a broad range of stakeholders from academia, industry, policy, and civil society. These stakeholders will contribute through interactive formats such as interviews, surveys, workshops, scenario exercises and games, and exhibitions.

The scientific partners are universities (De Montfort UniversityTechnische Universiteit DelftUniversiteit Twente); applied research institutions (Associazione per la Ricerca Industriale, Austrian Institute of TechnologyCEA Commissariat à l’énergie atomique et aux énergies alternativesTrilateral Researchand associations specialising in research ethics (ALLEA, the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities, EUREC European Network of Research Ethics Committees Office).  

The science engagement organisations are supervised by ECSITE (Association européenne des expositions scientifiques techniques et industrielles) and located in six European countries (Science Center Network AustriaiQLANDIA Science Popularization CentreBucharest Science FestivalCentre for the Promotion of Science, Parque de las CienciasVetenskap & Allmänhet Public & ScienceAll of them have outstanding expertise in dealing with ethics of new and emerging technologies.  

The well-balanced composition of the consortium together with the project’s participative multi-stakeholder approach provides an excellant basis to achieve TechEthos’s aims.    

Q.: What have been the best and worst moments in coordinating a collaborative H2020 project so far?

E. B.: The best experience in coordinating such a diverse consortium is to know that we are working with the top specialists in the field to reach our highly ambitious goals. The greatest challenge may be the unavoidable moments of utmost tension before this wonderful diverse pool of expertise and excellence synergizes into an operational solution.

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