From self-driving cars to artificial intelligence, the future of technology is as intriguing as ever. But that’s not without its implications, according to members of Cal Poly’s Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group, a research and educational group made of students and faculty that are focused on the risk, ethical and social impacts of emerging sciences and technologies.
The group formed in 2007 after philosophy associate professor and Director of Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group Patrick Lin came to Cal Poly. Originally, the group had focused on nanotechnology issues.
After an increased interest in military robots during the Iraq War, Lin joined forces with philosophy lecturer Keith Abney and former University of Southern California professor of engineering George Bekey to broaden the group’s scope and write a report on the ethics of autonomous military robots, Abney said.
“We are looking at emerging technologies that are only beginning to permeate public consciousness, but can drastically change the way human life is lived,” Abney said.
Today, the group focuses on a wide-range of focus areas, including cybersecurity, space exploration, robotics and human enhancement for publications like Forbes and Washington Post. They also host a lecture series, which most recently featured a talk on the mismatch between the promise of enhancement technologies and the reality of technologies originally aimed at disabled persons.
“Philosophers take a critical look to see what’s good and what’s bad so that we understand what we should try and speed up, in terms of technological progress,” Abney said.
Philosophy assistant professor Ryan Jenkins joined the group after coming to Cal Poly last year. Jenkins said philosophers and ethicists play a critical role in developing new technology because they consider things from all points of view.
“It’s not our job to take real hard positions on issues. We’re not partisan, we don’t have an agenda,” Jenkins said. “We’re like Switzerland, completely neutral.”
After working with organizations such as the U.S. Navy, Apple, the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford and the National Science Foundation, Cal Poly’s Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group is considered to be thought leaders for key issues revolving around science and society.
“It’s personally rewarding to be constantly learning and thinking hard about issues that haven’t been considered yet,” Abney said. “We’re on the cutting-edge of the intersection between science, technology and ethics.”
Recently, the group had the opportunity to share its expertise by participating in the United Nations’ Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) meeting of experts in Geneva, Switzerland. The group is also planning on organizing and participating on a panel about robot cars and Artificial Intelligence at the RSA Conference in San Francisco on March 2. In the fall, it also plans to visit Annapolis, Maryland for a cyberwarfare conference.
“It’s difficult to stop the progress of technology once it’s been released out in the wild,” Jenkins said. “That’s why emerging technologies are so important to look at.”
Despite its frequent travel, the group is happy to have found a home at Cal Poly which it believes is an ideal location for ethicists looking to work on issues related to emerging technologies.
“The comprehensive mission of a polytechnic school aligns closely to what we are trying to accomplish,” Jenkins said. “We’re lucky to have so many talented students and faculty at this school that are serious about these issues, and we’re always finding synergies with other disciplines.”
The group plans to continue its work to engage policymakers, businesses and academia, as well as the broader public, on key issues in science and society. They hope to set meaningful changes in motion.
“We hope that our work will have real world implications in policy,” Abney said. “I’m doing my little part so that ultimately, these technologies will be adopted safely and will change the world for the better.”