Science and technology are the great drivers of innovation in the world around us. Technological and scientific breakthroughs help people every day, bringing drinking water to the needy, access to information through the internet to remote villages, cures for obscure diseases.
Many aspects of scientific discovery are under no ethical questions. But there are also a number of scientific endeavors that push the ethical lines of what science should revolve around. While all the areas of controversy we’ll look into have great benefits, they also come with a lot of ethical burdens, like harm to animals, people, or the environment.
It all should make us stop and think, at what point do the negatives of innovation overshadow the good that it brings. And is there ever an innovation so beneficial to the world and mankind that it would be worth ethical tragedy on the road to scientific and technological progress? Ponder these questions as we look into 7 ethically controversial areas of science and technology…
Artificial intelligence is at the forefront of techno-jargon these days. Every company that has anything to do with technology is using it as a buzzword to sell their product. “New dog collar with built-in AI to detect when your dog is in distress!” Install our simple computer plug-in and we’ll optimize your workday.”
AI certainly has its applications and benefits, but there are areas where it has some extensive drawbacks. Take two key AI technologies that have questionable benefits, or rather extensive drawbacks: deep fakes and Neuralink.
You’ve probably heard of deep fakes, the face-swapping technology that is used to make world leaders say things they never did – or for less family-friendly things.
You might not know about Neuralink though. It’s one of Elon Musk’s technological endeavors that aims to improve brain-machine interfaces, record memories, and other technological advancements with the brain.
Focusing in on Neuralink first, questions surround the ethics of connecting human brains to machines and utilizing AI to make human brains function better. Ethical questions primarily focus on the development of said technology and potential side-effects. The company’s goal is to optimize human brain function, but the testing that will be needed to get there will be extensive. This means human testing, on human brains, with unknown consequences. At what point is the potential promise of drastic technological advancement not worth the potential human loss in the development of the technology?
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Moving from Neuralink, we’re met with technology, deep fakes, that pose less benefit to humanity. There’s arguably little reason that anyone needs to replace someone’s face with another’s in a video – at least, little reason that isn’t nefarious.
Yet, technology exists thanks to artificial intelligence and machine learning. It continues to be researched under the guise of benefits through improved video editing technology, but at the end of the day, there’s no way to keep it from being used for negative purposes.
At the end of the day, artificial intelligence has the potential to completely change how we interact with the world but are there too many negatives? Time will tell…
Through CRISPR, scientists are able to edit human genomes. That means researchers can alter DNA sequences and alter how our genes function. That means the potential to correct genetic defects, preventing the spread of disease – orrr for making designer babies.
CRISPR is short for CRISPR-Cas9, a gene-editing tool that utilizes the Cas9 enzyme to cut strands of DNA. It’s basically like molecular scrapbooking.
The idea and implementation of CRISPR came from how bacteria defend themselves, by chopping up and destroying the DNA of foreign invaders before they are able to take hold of the organism.
CRISPR was just a theory until in 2017, a paper was published demonstrating just how CRISPR worked.
Chinese scientists have started using CRISPR to engineer designer babies or create human babies with edited genes, primarily lacking any tendency towards genetic defects. All of this seems noble and can potentially improve humanity’s quality of life, but at what cost? We largely don’t know any potential side-effects and if there are any, we’re talking about human life.
Designing humans also brings into question what exactly a human is. Are we naturally occurring beings, or does being a human just mean thinking like we do and form or process doesn’t matter?
3. Gene editing (GMO)
Moving on from human gene editing in CRISPR, we can examine the ethical issues with gene editing on other beings, like plants. Gene editing encompasses anytime a scientist intervenes in an organism’s genetics.
This intervention creates GMOs or genetically modified organisms. This results in stronger, more drought-resistant crops. Or crops that have higher yields per acre, among a bounty of other things.
Today, gene editing happens across the world and it is done on both plants and animals, mostly in the pursuit of better food production. Looking into the animal realm, gene editing has been used to create pigs that aren’t susceptible to Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrom, or PRRS. Gene editing has been used to create pigs that are naturally very resistant to the disease, improving animal welfare.
The gene-editing process for all organisms is overseen by various federal agencies, obviously depending upon the country you’re practicing this science in. It raises many ethical concerns, primarily along with the side effects that might be caused by it, and it is still a much-debated topic by ethicists.
4. Animal testing
Animal testing is likely the most controversial area of scientific research on this list. Many people couldn’t care less while others vehemently oppose it. For years, animal testing has been used to create newer and better pharmaceuticals, better makeup, better shampoos, etc.
The keyword here is “better” as it means better for humans. At the end of the day, animal testing places the prevention of human suffering over the importance of the prevention of animal suffering. In certain cases, the ethical argument for animal testing is easier, i.e. cancer research, or other pursuits that would prevent human death. In other cases, the argument is harder, as the development of a better lipstick.
The ethical debate around animal testing is essentially a real-life trolley problem. On one hand, you have human suffering and on the other, you have animal suffering. And we seem to have no problem with animal suffering as long as it is for a greater cause.
In introducing the subject, we’ve made it seem fairly cut and dry, but as science goes, it rarely ever is. An increasing number of scientists are starting to question the relevance of continued animal testing at a time where AI and other tech is starting to be able to accurately model and predict biological interfaces. A great deal of animals are harmed in the creation of many of the chemicals, and we musk as ourselves, is it worth it?
5. Human trials
The natural progression from animal testing is human testing or trials of medication on human test subjects. Human subject research is often necessary to get drugs to the final phase of regulatory approval. It serves as the final check of how a given medicine or chemical will interact with the human system. Yet, time and time again it has hurt, maimed, or killed individuals. And we have to ask ourselves again, at what point does it become not worth it?
History hasn’t been kind to the reputation of human trials, though scientists are making a constant effort to create safety standards in the process.
In 1947, it was discovered that two German physicians conducted deadly experiments on concentration camp prisoners during WWII. They were prosecuted as war criminals in the Nuremberg Trials. The Allies then established the Nuremberg Code, being the first international document for voluntary human consent for research.
With human testing today, the testing proceeds only if the patient consents to the study. Though this often leads to people with lesser fortune signing up for human trials to earn some extra cash. The ethics of the entire research situation can still be hotly debated.
6. Weapons and military R&D
Military weapon development is another major crossroad of science and ethics. Take, for example, the development of the atomic bombs during the Manhattan Project during WWII. In many ways, the research conducted during these experiments furthered humanity’s understanding of atoms, molecules, and quantum. In other ways, this research killed tens of thousands of people.
Military power and weapon technology pose an ethical dilemma largely due to the nature of humankind. If a given country doesn’t invest resources into developing the best weapons technology, then another more powerful country will simply swoop in and overpower them. That’s the way it works nowadays. It’s the unfortunate truth of the interaction of global superpowers. And once again, we’re met with a real-life trolley problem.
Do we invest scientific resources into developing better weapons to protect ourselves and thus kill others, or do we let ourselves be killed and “protect” others? We would certainly not opt for the latter, would we?
7. Space colonization
Since it seems like the earth has seen better days, maybe it’s time to just abandon our planet and move to a new clean slate, like Mars. We know that there is flowing liquid water on Mars somewhere, and we know there are also other resources to help us survive.
So, why not just up and move humanity there?
The biggest ethical questions around Mars colonization are presented when you consider the potential of life on Mars or the potential of future life on Mars. We can’t state with absolute certainty that there is life on the planet. Moving humanity there could harm it. We also don’t definitively know that life won’t occur on the planet through natural means. If humanity moving there interrupts the natural progression of Mars life, isn’t that an ethical issue?
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The answers to those suppositions largely have to do with how humanity in total should approach its ethical responsibility. If you believe humanity’s only ethical responsibility is to themselves, then it’s likely not an issue. If you believe that we’re responsible for all lesser life forms, then you’ll run into countless ethical dilemmas in the process.
Closing out this discussion of ethical dilemmas in science and technology we’re left again wondering – what are innovation and the betterment of humanity worth? The answer to that question will vary depending upon who you ask… but ask yourself, what is innovation worth?