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Anticipatory Ethics for Emerging Technologies

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In this essay, a new approach for the ethical study of emerging technology ethics will be presented, called anticipatory technology ethics (ATE). The ethics of emerging technology is the study of ethical issues at the R&D and introduction stage of technology development through anticipation of possible future devices, applications, and social consequences. I will argue that a major problem for its development is the problem of uncertainty, which can only be overcome through methodologically sound forecasting and futures studies. I will then consider three contemporary approaches to the ethics of emerging technologies that use forecasting: ethical technology assessment, the techno-ethical scenarios approach and the ETICA approach, and I considered their strengths and weaknesses. Based on this critical study, I then present my own approach: ATE. ATE is a conceptually and methodologically rich approach for the ethical analysis of emerging technologies that incorporates a large variety of ethical principles, issues, objects and levels of analysis, and research aims. It is ready to be applied to contemporary and future emerging technologies.

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  1. See also, especially the deliverables.

  2. The ETICA project also uses these data to perform social and legal analyses. However, in my discussion I will focus on its use for ethical analysis.

  3. Some technologies are defined in terms of specific types of artifacts that they aim to develop and use. Examples are fuel cell technology and membrane technology. In such technologies, the technology and artifact level blend into each other.

  4. Certain complex artifacts, like power plants and railroad systems, may involve human actors as well. In such cases, human actors playing predefined roles are part of the design of the artifact, and the artifact is hence not a completely physical entity but also, in part, a social one.

  5. Even then, there are terminological difficulties. Should we say that an industrial robot is application of service robots to the industrial domain? Or should we rather say that an industrial robot is a subtype of service robots? This may depend on whether industrial robots are designed differently in important ways than generic service robots or whether they are only used in a different way.

  6. For particular purposes, it may be useful to employ more specific lists, e.g., lists that reflect European values, Asian values, conservative values or Christian values. In addition, it may be useful to develop specific checklists for specific types of technology. E.g., a checklist for information technology may focus on such values as privacy, security and accountability, whereas a checklist for medical technology may focus on such values as beneficence, nonmaleficence, human dignity and informed consent.

  7. For the design of specific artifacts, it is not necessary to await a full ATE analysis of the technology behind it. It would suffice to do an ATE analysis of potential ethical issues in relation to the planned artifact, which can then be used as input for a value-sensitive design analysis which helps designers to design the artifact in such a way that it displays conformity with relevant ethical values and principles.

  8. This paper was presented as a presidential address to the 17th conference of the Society for Philosophy and Technology, Denton, Texas, May 27th, 2011.


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Correspondence to Philip A. E. Brey.

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Brey, P.A.E. Anticipatory Ethics for Emerging Technologies. Nanoethics 6, 1–13 (2012).

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