August 12, 2008
Handle With Care
By CORNELIA DEAN
Last year, a private company proposed "fertilizing" parts of the
ocean with iron, in hopes of encouraging carbon-absorbing blooms of
plankton. Meanwhile, researchers elsewhere are talking about injecting
chemicals into the atmosphere, launching sun-reflecting mirrors into
stationary orbit above the earth or taking other steps to reset the
thermostat of a warming planet.
This technology might be useful, even life-saving. But it would
inevitably produce environmental effects impossible to predict and
impossible to undo. So a growing number of experts say it is time for
broad discussion of how and by whom it should be used, or if it should
be tried at all.
Similar questions are being raised about nanotechnology, robotics and
other powerful emerging technologies. There are even those who suggest
humanity should collectively decide to turn away from some new
technologies as inherently dangerous.
"The complexity of newly engineered systems coupled with their
potential impact on lives, the environment, etc., raise a set of
ethical issues that engineers had not been thinking about," said
William A. Wulf, a computer scientist who until last year headed the
National Academy of Engineering. As one of his official last acts, he
established the Center for Engineering, Ethics, and Society there.
Rachelle Hollander, a philosopher who directs the center, said the new
technologies were so powerful that "our saving grace, our inability
to affect things at a planetary level, is being lost to us," as
human-induced climate change is demonstrating.
Engineers, scientists, philosophers, ethicists and lawyers are taking
up the issue in scholarly journals, online discussions and conferences
in the United States and abroad. "It's a hot topic," said Ronald
C. Arkin, a computer scientist at Georgia Tech who advises the Army on
robot weapons. "We need at least to think about what we are doing
while we are doing it, to be aware of the consequences of our
So far, though, most scholarly conversation about these issues has
been "piecemeal," said Andrew Maynard, chief science adviser for
the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson Center
in Washington. "It leaves the door open for people to do something
that is going to cause long-term problems."
That's what some environmentalists said they feared when Planktos, a
California-based concern, announced it would embark on a private
effort to fertilize part of the South Atlantic with iron, in hopes of
producing carbon-absorbing plankton blooms that the company could
market as carbon offsets. Countries bound by the London Convention, an
international treaty governing dumping at sea, issued a "statement
of concern" about the work and a United Nations group called for a
moratorium, but it is not clear what would have happened had Planktos
not abandoned the effort for lack of money.
"There is no one to say 'thou shalt not,' " said Jane
Lubchenco, an environmental scientist at Oregon State University and a
former president of the American Association for the Advancement of
When scientists and engineers discuss geoengineering, it is obvious
they are talking about technologies with the potential to change the
planet. But the issue of engineering ethics applies as well to
technologies whose planet-altering potential may not emerge until it
is too late.
Dr. Arkin said robotics researchers should consider not just how to
make robots more capable, but also who must bear responsibility for
their actions and how much human operators should remain "in the
loop," particularly with machines to aid soldiers on the battlefield
or the disabled in their homes.
But he added that progress in robotics was so "insidious" that
people might not realize they had ventured into ethically challenging
territory until too late.
Ethical and philosophical issues have long occupied biotechnology,
where institutional review boards commonly rule on proposed
experiments and advisory committees must approve the use of
gene-splicing and related techniques. When the federal government
initiated its effort to decipher the human genome, a percentage of the
budget went to consideration of ethics issues like genetic
But such questions are relatively new for scientists and engineers in
other fields. Some are calling for the same kind of discussion that
microbiologists organized in 1975 when the immense power of their
emerging knowledge of gene-splicing or recombinant DNA began to dawn
on them. The meeting, at the Asilomar conference center in California,
gave rise to an ethical framework that still prevails in
"Something like Asilomar might be very important," said Andrew
Light, director of the Center for Global Ethics at George Mason
University, one of the organizers of a conference in Charlotte, N.C.,
in April on the ethics of emerging technologies. "The question now
is how best to begin that discussion among the scientists, to
encourage them to do something like this, then figure out what would
be the right mechanism, who would fund it, what form would
recommendations take, all those details."
But an engineering Asilomar might be hard to bring off. "So many
people have their nose to the bench," Dr. Arkin said,
"historically a pitfall of many scientists." Anyway, said Paul
Thompson, a philosopher at Michigan State and former secretary of the
International Society for Environmental Ethics, many scientists were
trained to limit themselves to questions answerable in the real world,
in the belief that "scientists and engineers should not be involved
in these kinds of ethical questions."
And researchers working in geoengineering say they worry that if
people realize there are possible technical fixes for global warming,
they will feel less urgency about reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
"Even beginning the discussion, putting geoengineering on the table
and beginning the scientific work could in itself make us less
concerned about all the things that we need to start doing now," Dr.
Light said. On the other hand, some climate scientists argue that if
people realized such drastic measures were on the horizon, they would
be frightened enough to reduce their collective carbon footprint.
Still others say that, given the threat global warming poses to the
planet, it would be unethical not to embark on the work needed to
engineer possible remedies - and to let policy makers know of its
But when to begin this kind of discussion? "It's a really hard
question," Dr. Thompson said. "I don't think anyone has an
answer to it."
Many scientists don't like talking about their research before it
has taken shape, for fear of losing control over it, according to
David Goldston, former chief of staff at the House Science Committee
and a columnist for the journal Nature. This mind-set is "generally
healthy," he wrote in a recent column, but it is "maladapted for
situations that call for focused research to resolve societal issues
that need to be faced with some urgency."
And then there is the longstanding scientific fear that if they engage
with the public for any reason, their work will be misunderstood or
portrayed in inaccurate or sensationalized terms.
Francis S. Collins, who is stepping down as head of the government
human genome project, said he had often heard researchers say
"it's better if people don't know about it." But he said he was
proud that the National Human Genome Research Institute had from the
beginning devoted substantial financing to research on privacy,
discrimination and other ethical issues raised by progress in
genetics. If scientific research has serious potential implications in
the real world, "the sooner there is an opportunity for public
discussion the better," he said in a recent interview.
In part, that is because some emerging technologies will require
political adjustments. For example, if the planet came to depend on
chemicals in space or orbiting mirrors or regular oceanic infusions of
iron, system failure could mean catastrophic - and immediate -
climate change. But maintaining the systems requires a political
establishment with guaranteed indefinite stability.
As Dr. Collins put it, the political process these days is "not well
designed to handle issues that are not already in a crisis." Or as
Mr. Goldston put it, "with no grand debate over first principles and
no accusations of acting in bad faith, nanotechnology has received
only fitful attention."
Meanwhile, there is growing recognition that climate engineering,
nanotechnology and other emerging technologies are full of "unknown
unknowns," factors that will not become obvious until they are put
into widespread use at a scale impossible to turn back, as happened,
in a sense, with the atomic bomb. At its first test, some of its
developers worried - needlessly - that the blast might set the
atmosphere on fire. They did not anticipate the bombs would generate
electromagnetic pulses intense enough to paralyze electrical systems
across a continent.
Bill Joy, a founder of Sun Microsystems, cited the bomb in a famous
2000 article in the magazine Wired on the dangers of robots in which
he argued that some technologies were so dangerous they should be
"relinquished." He said it was common for scientists and engineers
to fail "to understand the consequences of our inventions while we
are in the rapture of discovery" and, as a result, he said, "we
have yet to come to terms with the fact that the most compelling
21st-century technologies - robotics, genetic engineering and
nanotechnology - pose a different threat than the technologies that
have come before. They are so powerful they can spawn whole new
classes of accidents and abuses."
He called it "knowledge-enabled mass destruction."
But in an essay in the journal Nature last year, Mary Warnock, a
philosopher who led a committee formed to advise the British
government after the world's first test-tube baby was born there in
1978, said when people fear "dedicated scientists and doctors may
pursue research that some members of society find repugnant" the
answer is not to allow ignorance and fear to dictate which
technologies are allowed to go forward, but rather to educate people
"to have a broad understanding of science and an appreciation of its
potential for good."
In another Nature essay, Sheila Jasanoff, a professor of science and
technology studies at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard,
said a first step was for scientists and engineers to realize that in
complex issues, "uncertainty, ignorance and indeterminacy are always
In what she described as "a call for humility," she urged
researchers to cultivate and teach "modes of knowing that are often
pushed aside in expanding scientific understanding and technological
capacity" including history, moral philosophy, political theory and
social studies of science - what people value and why they value
Dr. Hollander said the new ethics center would take up issues like
these. "Do we recognize when we might be putting ourselves on a
negative technological treadmill by moving in one direction rather
than another?" she said. "There are social questions we should be
paying attention to, that we should see as important.
"I mean we as citizens, and that includes people in the academy
and engineers. It includes everybody."