Because technological development moves so quickly, it often outpaces changes in law and ethical norms that might be deemed necessary later. Sometimes, in the interim, people get hurt. At other times, preventive regulations may be overreactions, unnecessary to prevent harms and ultimately a drag on science and innovation. Eventually, it seems, some balance is achieved, and a nascent scientific field or technology is allowed to progress mostly according to market forces.
Our technologies are certainly changing us and our planet. Largely, they have expanded our life spans and improved our well-being, but we remain, as ever, nervous about the future in light of continuing technological change, and every day we are faced with new challenges to our expectations by burgeoning technological advancement. An example is automation. While the automation of countless jobs in both production and services promises to release millions of workers from dangerous and often tedious labors, it poses a real challenge for displaced workers and governments that must deal with them. Angst over automation and the outsourcing of labor is warranted. Our current social and state policies are insufficient to deal with an expanding pool of unskilled laborers who are being replaced by robots. Will our societies and governments adapt, or should we reject those technologies despite their obvious humane benefits?
As life spans increase due to improved medical technologies, we are faced with additional ethical dilemmas regarding retirement ages, long-term care for the elderly, and more philosophical issues such as ensuring that our lives after work (if we can stop working in our old age) have meaning and value. We must also seriously confront the ethical repercussions of further populating an overpopulated world or of finding technological solutions to inevitable scarcity and pollution.
Wendell Wallach’s comprehensive book A Dangerous Master considers general issues of technology leading our ethical development and its risks. It is is recommended reading for anyone interested in balancing ethics and policy with technological and scientific advances and is excerpted herein to provide a basis for some discussion and consideration.
Ryan Jenkins considers emerging issues around the rise of autonomous weapons. Autonomous and semiautonomous weapons free soldiers from numerous dangers, allowing robots to do jobs that otherwise put humans at risk. As we cede decision-making to our machines, however, real ethical questions arise about life and death and who should be responsible on the battlefield. These questions are actively being discussed by professional military ethicists, and Jenkins injects some needed philosophical discussion into the debates.
In my article (which has an online-only companion piece available at www.secularhumanism.org), I consider the risks and roles of regulation and ethics in the field of nanotechnology, which poses some unique threats and challenges. I try to raise analogies with existing technologies and also point to a particular approach—a path of “openness” in innovation and science—that I think may suit nanotech best and provide a good environment to guard against risks while encouraging development.
Patrick Lin discusses the ethics of autonomous cars. This is timely, as autonomous cars are now on our roads and, even more so than robot warriors, pose an immediate, daily challenge to many of our norms. How we enable autonomous cars to make decisions has life-and-death consequences, and philosophers and engineers are now grappling with engineering and policy decisions to best prevent harms and realize the cars’ potential and value.
Finally, James Hughes’s piece on enhancing virtues offers us a blueprint for hope. In the future, even if not the near future, as we perfect our abilities to design ourselves and improve on our features, how may we best adapt our ethical organs? What values and virtues can we strive for, both through education and design, to improve ourselves as moral creatures?
This collection of essays touches only the surface of issues in technology and ethics that are coming to the fore or that will shortly, as science and technology rapidly change. I am grateful for the opportunity to address them in this issue, my last formal editing and writing for the Center for Inquiry as I step down from my role at CFI as director of education and move on to my next adventure. Many thanks to FI Editor Tom Flynn and the many contributors who took part in this issue. Best of luck to all at CFI.