By Tom Still
MADISON, Wis. – News stories appear daily about how advances in science and technology have consequences, intended or otherwise, for society. Here are a few recent examples:
- All life forms leave behind trace amounts of genetic material. The same “eDNA” technology used to track invasive species or search for wildlife thought to be extinct can also be used to sleuth after people. If someone sets out to collect human DNA on purpose; are there safeguards in place?
- Sam Altman, the chief executive officer of OpenAI, this month urged a U.S. Senate subcommittee to regulate artificial intelligence. “I think if this technology goes wrong, it can go quite wrong,” Altman said. It’s not just AI-generated homework that worries many observers, but massive job disruption, autonomous weapons and a world where autocrats can use fakery to disrupt democracy. On the flip side, AI augments human decision-making and saves a lot of time for people and processes.
- Gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR can be used to enormous good for human health, but when a Chinese researcher announced he had altered the genetic make-ups of three embryos to make them resistant to HIV he was thrown in jail for three years. Earlier this year, a group of Chinese researchers and legal experts sought to keep the now-freed scientist from experimenting on humans again.
Exploring the boundaries and limits of innovation in an age when breakthroughs are happening at a startling pace is among the goals of the Responsible Innovation Hub, a new center within the Wisconsin Institute of Discovery on the UW-Madison campus. It’s an effort to examine how different disciplines – scientific, technical and business – can better work together for society.
Organizers of the hub hope to enhance the ethical development, adoption and distribution of technology; provide the private and non-profit sectors with advice and frameworks for ethics in technology; and increase the quality, prevalence and diversity of university-driven entrepreneurship through research and training.
If that sounds like a tall order in a skeptical age, it is. However, as a recent panel discussion in Madison revealed, it’s also top of mind for people in the tech world who think broadly about the effects of their work.
Speaking at a May 23 Tech Council Innovation Network luncheon in Madison, Institute for Discovery director Jo Handelsman, business school professor Jon Eckhardt and biomedical engineer Kris Saha answered questions from people who work with tech, science and business every day. They want to see advancements continue, but they’re also aware there can be consequences.
One Madison questioner noted social media is a technology deliberately designed to bring people back to their screens time and time again in a habit-forming way. Were the long-term effects of this profitable innovation truly considered, he asked?
The same day, the U.S. Surgeon General asked essentially the same question in Washington, D.C., when he issued an extraordinary public warning about the risks of social media to young people. Dr. Vivek Murthy urged a push to fully understand possible “harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.” While noting social media can benefit some users, Murthy said, “There are ample indicators that social media can also have a profound risk of harm…”
Panelist Eckhardt discussed the work of the institute’s Entrepreneurship Science Lab and how it is using data not available elsewhere to discover ways to improve student entrepreneurship. Handelsman, a microbiologist and National Academy of Sciences member, warned about the failure of science and industry to develop antibiotics to overcome human resistance to current drugs. Saha, whose lab focuses on gene editing and cell engineering, talked about the potential – and costs – of pursuing treatments for sickle cell disease, certain blood cancers and retinal diseases.
Some science, tech and related issues examined by the Responsible Innovation Hub will resolve around what’s already been done. Others will focus on what’s been left undone. Either way, centering those discussions around a multi-disciplinary center such as the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery makes sense.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He can be reached at email@example.com.