Ethical Considerations for Technological Advancement

Knowing my deep passion for reading, a friend and colleague  gifted me a copy of the book In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary Tale of the Nuclear Age by Stephanie Cooke.  While nuclear proliferation is a topic with which I am fairly inept, I am able to some extent to decipher and extract many of the themes which are not only relevant to topic of nuclear proliferation debate but also are relevant and applicable to other technological advancements as well.  Not knowing what to expect from this author, nor from the subject matter, I found the book to be extremely informative as well as disheartening.  There are a couple of things that stand out quite vividly to me regarding this subject matter.  The first is the constant perpetuation of nuclear development even after acknowledgement of the lack of understanding regarding the externalities. The second is the explicit damage that the pursuit of nuclear developments have had on the global environment and human health, and the third and final point is more broadly related to inherent ethical questions regarding pursuits of technology advancements which we have little to no understanding of.  The last point is equally if not more important today as it was 70 years ago, as advancements in artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, cloning, and financial engineering continue to accelerate beyond our comprehension of the risk.  Underlying all of these points, however, is a fundamental assumption that humanity, will adapt and resolve problems fast enough to ensure the continuity of life.

Without going into to many details of the book, there are a couple of implicit questions that I think, we, collectively as a moral society, should ask ourselves as we continue to pursue technological advancements which exceed our ability to mitigate and resolve the risks.

  • Should technologies be broadly promoted and implemented without technological capability to reverse engineer or return compounds to their simplest, biodegradable form in nature?
  • For technologies with significant and broad impacts around the globe, who is responsible for assessing and minimizing risks associated with implementation?
  • Who weighs in and resolves issues of global survival? Is it an issue of morality or sovereignty?
  • What controls can be put in place to avoid externalities with which we truly may have no fundamental understanding of the impacts?

Unfortunately, I do not have an answer for these questions.  In my opinion this is something that collectively as a society, we must demand higher standards from our leadership in public and private enterprise, and look beyond our borders to set moral and ethical standards on a global basis.  With that in mind, I do, however, strongly believe that the future of industry lies in de-engineering or deconstruction (i.e. the process of breaking down complex compounds, systems, and processes into their simplest form).  It is interesting how as a species, we can define the most complex and robust processes to develop advanced organic and chemical compounds, however, our solution for breaking them down is as simple as burying it in the ground for hundreds or thousands of years.

We can do better.

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