Interaction between ethics and technology


Interaction between ethics and technology

Over the next ten years, ethicists, philosophers and technologists will evaluate the ethical implications of new disruptive technologies (i.e. those which turn existing technologies upside down) and also revise the ethics describing these. They will do that within the project Ethics of Socially Disruptive Technologies, for which they have received 17.9 million euros from the Gravitation programme.

Philip BreyPhilip Brey

Ethics of technology is a hot topic, says the main applicant Philip Brey from the University of Twente. 'It is increasingly discussed at various levels, and the subject is a recurring theme in the wide range of Dutch and European funding programmes. That means there is a market for ethicists. However, the discipline is fragmented, and that is a disadvantage for the quality of our contribution.' The discipline of the philosophy and ethics of technology is still young. With this programme, the researchers want to build a firm foundation by jointly creating frameworks of ethical values and by updating the definitions underlying these.

Did you know? Within this programme, the researchers want to carry out a systematic reflection on the influence of new technology on society, and, in particular, on our standards and values.

Impact on society

New technology has an enormous impact on society. Just look at how smartphones and social networks have changed our economy and our relationships. 'Within this programme, we want to carry out a systematic reflection on the influence of new technology on society, and, in particular, on our standards and values. We will do this by using theories about the areas in which technological products change society, methods to anticipate how those changes will work out, and ways to analyse the dynamic technology development', says Brey. Some of the studies will focus on specific cases, in which the researchers will identify how a particular technology, such as artificial intelligence, influences society. With this, they will look both forwards and backwards in time, says the Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Technology at the University of Twente. 'We will focus on both new generations of technology such as synthetic biology, and also on technologies that radically changed the world in the past.'

Camera in mallThe term "privacy" dates from the nineteenth century and now has a completely different meaning.

Changing values

What makes this programme so special is that the researchers will also consider how technology has changed ethics, says Brey. 'The definitions that we use today for values such as privacy and responsibility originated in the 19th century,' he explains. 'Take the term privacy, for example. This was originally devised by American lawyers to protect famous people against all too intrusive journalists. Back then, the term privacy meant "the right to be let alone": people had the right not to be spied upon in their private lives. Due to the arrival of digital technologies, the meaning of that term has changed. Now the word privacy has far more to do with personal data that can be spread via digital networks.'
Even a term like responsibility, that probably seems to be an established concept, is subject to change as a consequence of technological progress, he says. 'Previously, responsibility was something that applied to one person, whose action immediately had a consequence, often at the same place. One such example is a car accident. Nowadays, responsibility is increasingly a collective term whereby an action of a group of people can have consequences much later and even in a completely different place in the world. Climate change is an example of that.'

New definitions

Not only the ethical values, but also the fundamental descriptive terms that are used in ethics and philosophy need to be updated, says Brey. 'Take the term human, for example. Technologies such as robotics and synthetic biology are challenging the boundaries between people, machines and animals. If you make an organism in the laboratory, then is that still an organism or is it more of a product?’


We want to explore whether it is possible to realise a global ethics that can be used to evaluate technologies with a worldwide implication
- Philip Brey

Within the programme, the researchers will explore and redefine about twenty of this type of ethical values and terms. For this, they will not only focus on the Netherlands or the Western world, but instead, they will try to observe things from a global perspective. 'We want to explore whether it is possible to realise a global ethics that can be used to evaluate technologies with a worldwide implication.'

Broader interest

The programme is not only important for the philosophy of technology, but for the social sciences and humanities in general, states Brey: 'In the social sciences and humanities, terms like human and responsibility are also used. We have involved several social scientists in the programme and will also share our results with this community.'

Brey states that the Gravitation grant is an enormous recognition for the discipline. 'The social and behavioural sciences as equally the humanities have only played a small role in the Gravitation programme in the past. Now that is gradually improving. I am pleased that the humanities have received an important boost with this award. It is also important from an international perspective. The Netherlands plays a leading role in the ethics of technology. Thanks to the 4TU Centre for Ethics, in which the three technical universities and Wageningen University have worked together for many years, we have acquired a considerable critical mass and influence. This grant will enable us to further expand this collaboration over the next ten years.’

Ethics of Socially Disruptive Technologies

Applicants: Prof. P.A.E. Brey (University of Twente), Prof. I.R. van de Poel (TU Delft), Prof. I.A.M. Robeyns (Utrecht University), Prof. S. Roeser (TU Delft), Prof. P.P.C.C. Verbeek (University of Twente), Prof. W.A. IJsselsteijn (Eindhoven University of Technology)

Size: 17.9 million euros for ten years
Number of researchers involved: 31

Tekst: Sonja Knols (Ingenieuse)

Banner: The impact of smartphones on society and our relationships is enormous.