4th DELTA Project Workshop

The fourth Re-constructing ELSI workshop of our DELTA project invited three speakers from private companies, each working on a latest area of technology – gene editing, cell culturing, and artificial intelligence and robotics, respectively.

Most ELSI discussion in the past were initiated by the government or other public bodies and focused primarily on implications of academic research. If we assume a linier model of technological development, this approach might sound reasonable because that would be the moment when we have a relatively clear idea of what the technology in question is about but it has not been integrated into our society yet and could still be put under social/political control. However, we have learnt from Science and Technology Studies that such an assumption is implausible, not only because technological development is a much more complex process but also because what it produces can be interpreted differently and can take multiple forms reflecting the contexts it is situated in. From this point of view, visions of private companies can be treated like “scenarios”, plausible stories of the future involving a new technology that they work on. We felt that engagement of private companies in ELSI discussion could be hugely valuable, and decided to invite the speakers this time.

The critical question to ask was: “their engagement can be valuable for us, that is, those who are concerned about ELSI of latest sciences and technologies, but can it be for them too?” In other words, we need to know what would count as a sufficient incentive for private companies to spend their resource on exploring ELSI of their products/services and work with academics and political authorities to address it. Reliance on the notion of corporate social responsibility would probably be of little help here. But at the same time, it would be difficult for public bodies, including the government, to offer sufficient financial incentives for their constant engagement. This situation somewhat resembles the discussion on orphan drugs, although I don’t necessarily see the Orphan Drug Act as a perfect solution for the challenge (see my work on the topic).

Interestingly, the three speakers presented quite divergent approaches. One is to avoid obviously sensitive areas of technological applications but press the boundary of “grey” ones. Companies taking this approach may be willing to cooperate with the government and academics because it helps them to reduce the risk they have to take. Also, the cooperation would speed up gathering of relevant evidences, with which they might be able to justify their business. Another is to be a bit more conservative and wait until some kind of consensus on how their technology ought to be used to emerge. Companies themselves would likely have internal discussions too and would help the government and academics by supplying relevant information when asked. The third is to create a consensus by letting the public test and taste different applications of the technology. Companies, however, need someone to make the revealed preference officially recognized, and that might possibly be the place where the government and academics can play a role.

The idea of course is not to evaluate these approaches and decide which one to promote but to figure out how we can design productive interaction among different stakeholders, including the government, academics, and private companies. And an interesting direction to do so seems to think about how we can create a “safe” space for trials and errors – “safe” in the sense that the impact of the test can be contained within the space but also in the sense that actors involved are protected from financial and reputational damages. (Well, we don’t want testing of self-driving cars to cause fatal accident in our city, do we?) The history of ELSI, which has its origin in life sciences, is not necessarily sympathetic to the idea of trials and errors. But given its wider use now, we might have to open up the conversation. Instead of discussing whether a technological application should be allowed, we might want to think and talk about how well we would be able to contain the impact of such an application. Once we translate the moral question into a technical/regulatory one, we might have a very different group of experts participating in the discussion.


ー日本語(Japanese ver.)ー

第4回 「ELSI概念の再構築」研究会開催






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