Researchers from Dutch universities are launching a major new research programme into the ethics of disruptive technologies. The ethicists, philosophers and technical scientists have received a grant of 17.9 million euros from the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. The research should lead to a better moral understanding of the changes that groundbreaking innovations like artificial intelligence and molecular biology have on society. The ten-year programme is a collaboration between the University of Twente, TU Delft, Utrecht University and TU Eindhoven, in which Wageningen University & Research, Leiden University and Utrecht University Medical Centre also participate.
New technologies are currently shooting up like mushrooms. They include innovations in the fields of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, nanomedicine, molecular biology, neurotechnology and climate technology. These technologies will have a major impact on everyday life and can contribute to solving issues such as climate change and the depletion of raw materials.
But they also raise moral questions that call for ethical reflection. Values such as privacy, freedom and equality, the boundary between natural and artificial, and the perception of freedom and responsibility are increasingly being challenged.
The researchers argue that these developments require a “reorientation in the field of the ethics of technology”. Within the programme they will be developing new methods needed to understand the new disruptive technologies, to evaluate them from a moral perspective, and, if necessary, to intervene in the way in which the technology continues to develop. An additional goal is to renew ethics and philosophy in a broad sense by investigating how modern technology changes the meaning of classical ethical values and philosophical concepts.
The programme is not only unique in the Netherlands but also internationally. The Dutch scientists, including TU Eindhoven professors Wijnand IJsselsteijn and Anthonie Meijers, are among the world leaders in their field.
The research at TU Eindhoven will focus on the influence of biomedical and digital technologies on the self-image and self-understanding of people. Concepts such as autonomy, corporality, mortality and transcendence will be called into question by innovations such as genetic manipulation and artificial intelligence.
Take for instance stem cell research into diseases such as Parkinson’s, that increasingly makes use of hybrid human-animal embryos. What does this imply for the distinction between humans and animals, which for so long has determined our norms and values, and our legislation?
IJsselsteijn is very pleased with the grant. “Technical universities have a role and responsibility when it comes to the human, social and ecological consequences of technology. The grant underlines the importance of ethical reflection and accountability in technical innovations, and gives us the means to renew the ethics themselves where necessary”.
“Technical universities have a role and responsibility when it comes to the human, social and ecological consequences of technology.”
The project is the first in the field of philosophy to receive a contribution from the so-called Gravitation programme. The programme, which is financed by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, focuses on excellent scientific research programmes. The Dutch Research Council (NWO), the national science financier, supervises the programme on behalf of the Ministry. In this round, six projects received a total contribution of 113.5 million euros. The contribution will enable top researchers to undertake innovative research of a fundamental character for a ten-year period.