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Research on ethical and legal aspects of new technologies

In the upcoming decades, technology will change the world. One of the most important questions in this connection is, just how far do we want to go? Over the next three-and-a-half years, University of Twente researchers, together with counterparts from around the world, will be tackling that very question.

European policy

This study will focus on those ethical and legal aspects of new technologies that are expected to have major social and economic impacts. It is hoped that this work will generate valuable input for future European policy.

By providing grant support for the SIENNA project, the European Union is investing heavily in research into the impact of new technologies on human rights and ethics. Using an innovative approach, the SIENNA project (the name stands for Stakeholder-Informed Ethics for New technologies with high socio-economic and humaN rights impAct) will explore the impact of our growing capabilities in the fields of robotics, human genetics and human enhancement. 

Important issues

All three technologies raise important issues. According to Philip Brey, Professor of Philosophy of Technology at the University of Twente and SIENNA project leader, “Our steady progress in the area of artificial intelligence is leading inexorably to the creation of self-learning robots. If machines like these become disobedient, for example, they may pose risks to safety”. “The area of human genetics features a range of developing issues. For instance, do we accept that parents should be able to decide what their child’s gender should be, or what characteristics it should have? Human enhancement deals with the question of which technological improvements to the human body we find acceptable, and which ones we do not. Might we soon become superhuman? What impact would that have on our lives and on how we interact with others?”

All these developments must be brought into line with our values and interests. Prof. Brey explains that “The use of codes of ethics, guidelines, legislation, regulations, and research protocols, for example, can ensure that respect for human rights is an integral part of the development of new technologies. This would involve aspects of freedom, privacy, equality, human autonomy, and human dignity.”

Working hand-in-hand with various stakeholders, the project will explore the ethical implications of these technological developments. Experts will identify anticipated developments, both in terms of the technology involved, and in terms of the associated social impact. Civil society and businesses will be consulted about their views on these issues. In addition, no less than eleven thousand interviews will be conducted in eleven different countries, to survey people’s views of these technologies.

Global context 

The scope of this study will not be limited to Europe, as the researchers will also be exploring developments beyond the borders of the continent. Philip Brey notes that “This topic is ideally suited to such a far-reaching approach. It will be interesting to see how these issues are handled outside Europe, and to find out how people feel about them. The proposals we will be putting forward in the context of this project greatly exceed the scope of purely European frameworks.”

European grant

The project is supported by a grant of approximately four million euros from Horizon 2020, the European Framework Programme for Research and Innovation. As project coordinator, the University of Twente is enlisting expertise from the various academic disciplines involved. In addition to Prof. Brey’s Department of Philosophy, various other participants are closely involved in the study, such as the departments of Governance and Technology for Sustainability and Human Media Interaction.

The other partners in the project are: Uppsala University (Sweden), Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (Poland), Harvard University (US) European Network of Research Ethics Committees, Trilateral Research Ltd. (United Kingdom), University of Granada (Spain), Ionian University (Greece), Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), Dalian University of Technology (China), French National Centre for Scientific Research (Sciences Po) (France), Chuo University (Japan) and the University of Cape Town (South Africa). The project is also supported by organizations such as IEEE, ACM, EURobotics, the World Health Organization, the Human Genome Organisation, ALLEA (All European Academies) and the Council of Europe.

L.P.W. van der Velde MSc (Laurens)
Spokesperson Executive Board (EB)