Written by Guillermo Garrido-Lestache
On Tuesday the 17th of March, the EPRS Library Reading Room hosted the launch event for the publication “Ten technologies which could change our lives“, written by the Scientific Foresight Unit (STOA). The event featured the presence of Ms Eva Kaili, MEP and STOA Vice-Chair, as moderator, as well as three speakers from different backgrounds, who provided their points of view on the issues regarding technology, ethics and law-making.
Dr Bart De Moor, Professor of Electrical Engineering and co-founder of multiple spin-off high-tech companies, commenced his speech by arguing that technology is the trans-human extension of biological evolution. This implies that there is no reason to fear technological progress or consider it a threat to humanity or nature. He explained that, in his experience as an innovator and researcher, he had found that there were three deficits in the development of his field. First, there is a legal deficit, as laws are never able to catch up with the advancements in technology. Second, there is the democratic deficit, as there is a lack of scientists in politics, which leads to society and politicians having to trust and believe in the criteria of scientists when deciding on certain issues. The third deficit is ethical, because with science it is increasingly true that everything is possible, but science cannot decide on its own what should be done. He also pointed out that he considers that synthetic biology will be the defining technology of the 21st century.
The next speaker was Dr Tsjalling Swierstra, a Philosophy Professor whose research focuses on the ethical and political implications of science and technology. He explained how technologies always have ethical implications and transform the culture and nature of their users, even if this is unexpected (such as with revenge-effects, when the outcome is the opposite of what was originally intended). He further argued that the impacts of technologies can be put into two categories. Hard impacts are quantifiable, directly caused by the technology and never contested or controversial, as they refer to universal values, such as health, environment and safety. Soft impacts, on the other hand, are qualitative, regard controversial values and are co-produced by the entanglement between technology and society. Privacy, he stated, is a major controversial value in relation to the soft impacts of the technologies included in the report. He then concluded that soft law is not enough, and that the appropriate way to deal with soft impacts is by having a political and ethical public debate on how culture and education can be shaped so that technology does not cause harm.
The final speaker, Dr Paula Tihonen, is Counsellor of the Committee for the Future of the Finnish Parliament. She highlighted the importance of foresight, stating that it is crucial in giving politicians a head start. Thus, policy-makers may possess actual legal or budgetary power at any given moment, but also a potential visionary power, which is the power to see in the long-term and discuss about the desirability or not of certain futures. Among the ten technologies included in the report, she mentioned Graphene as the one with the greatest potential.
These stimulating speeches were followed by an engaging and thought-provoking debate with the participation of panel speakers and the audience. Overall, the event demonstrated that scientific foresight is of interest to politicians and citizens alike. We look forward to releasing further EPRS publications on Scientific Foresight.