1 Introduction

Molecular Robotics (Molbot) is a prominent field in newly explored science and technology. Molbot researchers aim to produce artificial molecular systems with actuators, sensors, and intelligence. At present, they predominantly manipulate DNA, RNA, and other biomolecules as the parts for building nano-scale robots and systems [1]. The interdisciplinary features of Molbot attract researchers from various fields such as molecular biology, bioinformatics, computer science, chemistry, mechanical engineering, and others.

When the Molbot researchers in Japan initiated a large team project funded for five years by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) starting in 2012 [2], the Molbot community recognized the need for a future vision of technical development and its social implementation. The translational research for the Molbot application, funded by the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) in 2016, also motivated part of the community to discuss future societal and related issues, including ethical characteristics and social agendas, to implement Molbot technology into society.

In particular, since several researchers were interested in the enactment of guidelines for promoting Molbot applications and related research, Konagaya, who was a main member of the above-mentioned MEXT and NEDO projects, developed the “Molbot ethics research project” [3], which was supported by the “Human-Information Technology Ecosystem (HITE)” program, for seeking and collaborating with social scientists. In the HITE program run by the Research Institute of Science and Technology for Society (RISTEX), a division of the Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST), the advisory board and officers bridged two projects that were managed by a Molbot researcher (Konagaya) and a researcher of Science and Technology Studies (STS) (Shineha) to encourage mutual and equal collaboration between natural and social scientists. They began efforts to establish their own ethical principles as the first step to address the potential Ethical, Legal, and Social Issues (ELSI) of Molbot [4].

Contextualizing emerging science and technologies (S&T) has become an important issue in technologically advanced countries. A central concern is how they can maximize benefit and minimize the potential risk of emerging S&T. Here, a core aspiration is understanding and dealing with ELSI from upstream, that is, as early as possible in the stages of research and development (R&D). The keyword “ELSI” began to be used in the research program under the Human Genome Project [5]. During discussions about ELSI on human genome research, it was recognized that ELSI researchers should aim not only to understand ELSI in depth but also to examine various impacts on daily life and society. However, these ELSI studies and public dialogues were conducted primarily by scholars in bioethics and related areas, and the participation of genome scientists was limited.

More recently, in scientific policy—such as “Horizon 2020,” an important European Research and Innovation Program—topics “Science with and for Society” have been discussed under the framework of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI). In “Horizon 2020,” five major policy themes were suggested: broad public engagement in S&T and innovation, increasing accessibility to scientific results, ensuring gender equality in both the research process and research content, taking ELSI into account, and formal and informal science education [6].

Here, we briefly introduce several important background features to comprehensively explain the concept of RRI. The conversation on real-time technology assessment (RTTA) is one of the roots of RRI discussions [7, 8]. Guston and Sarewitz discussed RTTA as key trials to create better decision-making and communication between science and society and summarized the key components of RTTA as “research program mapping,” “analogical case study,” “communication and early warning,” and “technology assessment and choice” [7]. Anticipatory governance (AG) has also influenced RRI discussions. The concept of AG is managing the society with emerging S&T, and it emphasizes that “anticipation” affects the attitudes among various actors and directions of policies on emerging S&T [9].

According to Stilgoe et al., “Responsible innovation means taking care of the future through collective stewardship of science and innovation in the present” [10] (p. 1570). They also discussed the concept of RRI as having four key components: anticipation, inclusion, reflexivity, and responsiveness. Yoshizawa et al. summarized these components as: “(1) anticipatory: including new perspectives on wider societal effects of research and innovation (R&I); (2) inclusive: involving diverse stakeholders in R&I processes; (3) reflexive: examining and reflecting on researchers and innovators’ own ethical assumptions and their role and responsibilities in public dialogue; and (4) responsive: being flexible and capable to change R&I processes according to public values, concerns, and expectations” [4] (p. 165). In other words, RRI is a way of thinking about reflexive and adaptive innovation concerning emerging S&T. It encourages us to develop legitimate and more effective processes of decision-making through open and transparent dialogue with various stakeholders considering potential ELSI from upstream [10,11,12,13,14].

Discussions about RRI were also influenced by the controversy over genetically modified organism (GMO) from the 1990s to 2000s. One of the most crucial lessons of the GMO controversy was the importance of upstream open dialogue about potential ELSI between various stakeholders such as scientists, policy-makers, journalists, farmers, the public, and others. Following these lessons, the nanotechnology community started upstream discussions on ELSI during R&D programs. For example, in the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) in the US, the idea of “Responsible Development” was suggested, considering previous lessons and requests to maximize benefits and minimize risks of new S&T. As a result, the trial of discussions for responsible development requested assessments of both the positive and negative effects of new technologies, considering potential ELSI. Those trials form a basic part of the historical background of RRI discussions [8, 9, 15,16,17].

Further, in a relevant research field, synthetic biology, issues on ELSI and RRI have been discussed from upstream. For example, the UK Synthetic Biology Roadmap Coordination Group, which mainly consists of members from Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council UK (BBSRC) and Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), published A Synthetic Biology Roadmap for the UK in 2013 [18]. The UK Synthetic Biology Roadmap Coordination Group learned various viewpoints found in Synthetic Biology Dialogue published in 2010 [19]: clarification of benefits, collaboration with various stakeholders, lessons from GMO controversy, appropriate and international harmonized regulatory frameworks, effective and adaptive management of new technology for global societal and economic issues, and open dialogue about new technology [18, 19]. Another significant trial has been conducted in the education on ELSI at the international Genetically Engineered Machine Competition (iGEM). In Japan, the Japanese Society for Cell Synthesis Research has maintained a session on ELSI and Science Communication in their annual meetings [20].

Although many issues with ELSI and RRI have already been discussed, as described above, several concerns still remain. One major issue is that the discussion and dialogue around ELSI and RRI had an aspect of alibi-making, and thus, it increased suspicion around validation and the legitimacy of discussions [21,22,23]. Another issue is that it was difficult for the scientists to always be the main actors within discussions on ELSI and RRI. In other words, there is a communication divide between scientists and ELSI and RRI researchers. These issues have been noted under the concept “post-ELSI,” which points out five key attitudes for overcoming them: “collaborative experimentation,” “taking risks,” “collaborative reflexivity,” “opening-up discussions of unshared goals,” and “neighbourliness” [22].

Taking these lessons into account, we examine one of the most recent and significant cases for RRI practice on emerging S&T where scientists and ELSI and RRI researchers mutually worked to bridge communication gaps and tackled face-to-face dialogues with various stakeholders. Here, we focus on the case of Molbot as an important example of equal collaboration and communication between scientists and ELSI and RRI researchers. Current discussions about ELSI and RRI concerning emerging S&T are rooted in previous trials and lessons, as outlined above. A fundamental question here is who the main actor should be in these discussions. This question led us to the notion that scientists in emerging fields themselves are expected to imagine the potential benefits, risks, and ELSI, because of their expertise in these fields. This paper will report the recent trials to answer this expectation. In the next section, we describe our methodology and how the collaboration between Molbot researchers and social scientists for the formulation of ethical principles began. Section 3 illustrates the issues found in the process of accepting ethical principles and how the Molbot community overcame them. In Sect. 4, we present discussions on the current case of Molbot RRI practice, including its challenges and achievements. In the final section, we conclude our paper with the significance and limitations of the present study.

2 Formulation of ethical principles of molecular robotics

Molbot researchers in Japan are trying to contextualize their science in society from early R&D stages towards innovation based on the concerns described in Sect. 1. They attempt to imagine both the positive and negative impacts of Molbot, learning from the previous cases outlined above. Molbot is still at the initial stage of its growth. Therefore, it is difficult for both outsiders and the Molbot researchers alike to fully understand its characteristics and possibilities as new technology and imagine its impacts. Thus, Molbot researchers collaborated with social scientists to hold open dialogues and workshops with various stakeholders.

For discussing ELSI and RRI agendas, some Molbot researchers and scholars in the fields of STS and bioethics have held more than ten formal workshops and symposia and began implementing regular meetings and informal dialogues in 2016 that continue to the present day. In a scenario workshop held on February 19, 2018, approximately 40 participants including Molbot researchers, STS scholars, bioethicists, sociologists, policymakers, journalists, and the general public interested in emerging S&T attempted to consider a future society with Molbot. We obtained six scenario maps illustrating the future of Molbot and its usages in the society. Figure 1 shows an example of the results of the scenario workshop. While developing scenario maps and in other workshops and symposia, Molbot researchers and social scientists repeatedly discussed possible negative impacts, connecting them to valuable lessons from previous cases [4].

Fig. 1
figure 1

An example of expected ELSI/RRI issues and the worst and best (represented as “dark” and “brilliant,” respectively) Molbot scenarios. A broken line expresses an example of the course of scenarios. The points above were extracted from comments made by participants in the scenario workshop (Tokyo, February 18 in 2018) with Molbot researchers and social scientists. This infographic was created by Makoto Tomita (Tokai University) and his colleagues and translated into English by Ryuma Shineha

Further, they have taken up the challenge of drawing up their ethical principles, thus clarifying their continuous effort to maximize benefits and minimize potential risks. During discussions, STS collaborators paid particular attention to lessons from past cases of GMO and nanotechnology because some Molbot researchers are interested in agricultural applications. The keywords “molecular” and “robotics” were found to be associated with images of “nano-robotics” and “nano-technology” via media analysis [4]. Thus, we extracted lessons about ELSI and RRI from discussions on nanotechnology in addition to those on GMO, regenerative medicine, dual-use, and research integrity and research ethics by reviewing literature and conducting a media analysis and summarized their implications as research notes. These notes were shared between the Molbot researchers and collaborating scholars who participated in two related projects under the HITE program of the JST-RISTEX as reference points for subsequent discussions and for creating ethical principles [24, 25].

After the discussions in the workshop regarding Molbot ELSI and RRI and the scenario workshop, which was conducted under the HITE programs [4], the ethical principles of Molbot (version 1.0) were formulated on March 5 in 2018. It was later published with minor revisions made on August 8 in 2018 (version 1.1) [26]. The ethical principles consist of the following terms: “Comprehensive assessment of risks and benefits,” “Consideration for safety and environment,” “Paying attention to security and dual-use issues,” and “Ensuring accountability and transparency.” It is commonly believed that Molbot and its core technology, DNA nanotechnology, will be applied in medicine due to its bio-compatibility derived from the component material, that is, biomolecules [27, 28]. In addition, the interdisciplinary nature of Molbot allows for versatile applications that are not limited to the conventional medical and biotechnological fields. The Molbot technology builds functional molecular systems as intelligent robots with nanometer-scale precision, which brings up particular concerns from the broader points of view including nanotechnology, artificial intelligence (AI), and others. Therefore, the terms of ethical principles were carefully formulated by considering previous cases and publications such as the Code of Ethics for Engineers [29]; NEW DIRECTIONS: The Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologies [30]; Principles for Designers, Builders and Users of Robots and Seven High-Level Messages [31]; Nanotechnologies and Ethics: Policies and Actions [32]; The Japanese Society for Artificial Intelligence Ethical Guidelines [33], etc.

3 RRI practice in molecular robotics in Japan

According to the Twitter text mining analysis conducted from January to February 2017, the level of attention, knowledge, and awareness about molecular robots outside the corresponding academic research community was found to be very limited in Japan [4]. Therefore, the anticipatory TA activities for Molbot in Japan, which had been launched at the very early stage of R&D, aimed to promote the academic and public debate. The effects of these activities are worth being analyzed.

This situation presented practical difficulties. While preventive discussions for RRI are favored, it is difficult to foresee Molbot’s social impact and to understand the necessity of governing technological development at the early R&D stage without the presence of actualized risks [22]. When the ethical principles (version 1.0) were proposed by Kawahara for the first time in the session, “ELSI of the molecular robotics,” in the 1st annual meeting of Molecular Robotics in Japan, held in March 2018, the responses from Molbot researchers were not entirely negative but remained undecided. The points at which the researchers were not sure were advisability and validity of the principles and the unexpected constraint imposed by them. Consequently, the approval of the ethical principles and the discussion with the aim of reaching a consensus among the research community were carried over. This approach was not due to a lack of knowledge about RRI but rather the lack of involvement of Molbot researchers in the process of ethical principles formulation. This process was led by social scientists and a limited number of Molbot researchers. They seemed to attempt to answer several questions, such as why is the formulation of Molbot ethical principles required? What problems does Molbot face? Is the discussion process about Molbot ethical principles appropriate?

Yoshizawa et al. pointed out four crucial activities for RRI in Molbot: "getting to grips with the speed of the development of molecular robotics, monitoring related technical trends, the establishment of a more stable TA knowledge base, and a sustained interaction between molecular roboticists and social scientists" [4]. The latter two were practiced in the workshops during the HITE programs to discuss the social and ethical issues relating to Molbot. In addition, an educational effort focusing on ELSI is made at the domestic pre-jamborees for the annual international Biomolecular Design Competition (BIOMOD) since 2017 [34]. Undergraduate student teams are asked to present ELSI considerations for their projects. It is thought that these activities have contributed to increased awareness of RRI among Molbot researchers, especially in the younger generations.

Based on the awareness of RRI by Molbot researchers as a result of the above communication with social scientists and the educational effort, the initial draft of the ethical principles was revised. The appropriate revision was discussed online from February to March 2019, reflecting the viewpoints of Molbot researchers. This discussion was led by young researchers including an undergraduate student, who had participated in BIOMOD. Two points became the main agenda during the discussion. First, how do we appropriately express the emerging technology aspect of Molbot in the ethical principles? It is impossible to foresee the future development, practical applications, and risks of these emerging technologies. Therefore, it is important to allow flexible and adaptive steering of technological development for desirable futures via continuous TA. Here, the rules are responsive rather than fixed, and thus make room for action against any risks that emerge.

Second, why is the restraint of technology development necessary? The honest, self-governing of science and technology is required for obtaining credit from society [35, 36]. A trusting relationship with society is considered essential both for minimizing any negative social impact and for maximizing the public benefit of novel technology and the research productivities enhanced with autonomy. Here, we use the term “autonomy,” referring to the classical case of scientists’ discussions on GMO guidelines through the Asilomar conference in the 1970s and considering the historical context of conversations regarding scientists’ responsibility [37]. For the current case, we have added the meaning of a responsible and reflexive process for examining ELSI and RRI agendas by the scientific community itself, that is, an attitude to not impose decision-making and examination of the points on social scientists such as those involved in STS, bioethics, and other researchers.

In the ELSI session of the 2nd annual meeting of Molecular Robotics in Japan, held in March 2019, Komiya made an introductory remark focusing on the governance of the development of Molbot technology by the researcher community itself. Then, he explained the revision for the ethical principles reflecting the viewpoints of Molbot researchers in the online discussion mentioned earlier. In the following discussion at the session, the participants actively exchanged opinions on further revisions as a practice of responsiveness—one of the key elements of RRI [10]. Finally, the revised version (version 1.2) of ethical principles was approved in the session. Beyond this, it was acknowledged that further continual discussion is expected for the flexible and adaptive assessment of emerging technology (Fig. 2).

figure 2

Effective workflow of expected ELSI/RRI issues in Molbot and feedback of comments to discussions

4 Discussion

4.1 Implications and concerns related to Molbot RRI practices

This study examines the formation of the ethical principles in Molbot and discusses its implications. This kind of process minimizes the negative impacts of new S&T through reflexive and adaptive dialogues between researchers and society and allows scientists to hold the initiative in maintaining an appropriate research environment by themselves. This is a valuable example of scientific autonomy that scientists themselves can conduct. Through this process, participating Molbot researchers and social scientists were able to acknowledge the various ways to evaluate and optimize the impact of Molbot currently and in the foreseeable future. As mentioned in Sect. 2, the Molbot ethics project group repeatedly held workshops and symposia to discuss ELSI and RRI agendas and extracted various expectations and concerns about Molbot and its usage in the future. In this section, we examine several implications of this technology, focusing on the results of the scenario workshop.

As a profound example, we review previous discussions for avoiding one of the worst scenarios possible in Molbot in society [4, 24]. Particularly, it was recognized that the dispersion of molecular robots in the field environment will arouse much controversy. Thus, we need to consider appropriate regulations and treatment schemes of Molbot in the field. During discussions regarding Molbot field use in the formal and scenario workshops, the function of self-replication became a significant topic, attracting the interest of both Molbot researchers and social scientists. Through these discussions, it became apparent that introducing the mechanism to induce self-termination for avoiding worries of self-replication of molecular robots is also an important agenda [4].

In addition, Molbot, as is the current form of material systems research, may bypass the regulatory framework of the Cartagena protocol and corresponding domestic law. This is because while molecular robots that are manipulated and organized by Molbot technology utilize substances from living organisms such as DNA, RNA, liposome, etc. [38,39,40], they do not have a function of self-replication. Thus, they are not regarded as living organisms. According to this characteristic, current molecular robots can be interpreted as outside of the realm of regulatory systems on GMOs. However, if Molbot implemented the function to edit genomes, the organisms affected by molecular robots will be held to the regulations of Cartagena domestic law. Scientists are already discussing the possibility of such cases in the future. Simultaneously, scientists have been interested in dual-use issues and ways in which to minimize the negative impacts of dual-use have become one of the concerns among the community. This kind of organizational learning and adjusting is commonly crucial for emerging S&T.

4.2 Molbot research circumstances

Molbot is the interdisciplinary research field pioneered by Japanese researchers since 2010 [4], many of which originally conducted DNA-based computing studies [41,42,43,44,45]. It comes naturally to these researchers to debate the risks of the development of Molbot, similar to those of AI and robotics. In addition to the government-funded project of Molbot [2], DNA-based computing researchers have also contributed to the project of synthetic biology [46]. Therefore, they are familiar with the ELSI discussion in synthetic biology. The RRI practice that was initiated autonomously by the Molbot researchers at the very early stage of technology development, as reported in this paper, can be attributed to these backgrounds.

The continuous effort of researchers to conduct the reflexive public dialogue and responsive R&I is essential to secure RRI. However, administrative overload deprives researchers of time for science communication [47,48,49]. If consideration of ELSI and RRI agendas further occupies their time for research, it may lead to the loss of funding, promotion, or employment in the current evaluation system. The reconstruction of science and technology policies by adjusting what is considered a valuable research activity, following the discussion about the relationship between science and society, would maximize the positive social impact of emerging S&T and minimize their potential risks toward more desirable futures. It seems important to encourage the autonomous efforts of scientists leading to RRI practice like the formulation and acceptance of the Ethical Principles of Molecular Robotics observed in the present case of the Molbot researchers. Therefore, it might be effective to institute a system in which experts evaluate case reports of ELSI and RRI discussions between natural and social scientists for avoiding superficial communication only intended for alibi-making and recommend the promotion and funding of researchers.

4.3 The meaning of scientific autonomy

Generally speaking, emerging S&T requires scientists’ autonomy and their active discussions to create regulatory frameworks for managing potential benefits and risks. The participation of the scientist is essential because of the specificity of the emerging S&T features, rapid technological advances, requirements of expertise in these cutting-edge fields, and the deep practical knowledge gained by being a researcher in the field. One of the most important achievements in the current practice of Molbot researchers is the intuitive understanding of the different natures of concepts between “ELSI” and “RRI.” For example, several Molbot researchers noted that ELSI sounds “top-down,” but RRI encourages “bottom-up” discussions by scientists and other stakeholders, and it reminds all of the values of autonomy of scientific communities.

One of the earliest cases of this kind of scientific autonomy was the Asilomer Conference and scientists’ guidelines for GMOs in the early 1970s. The guidelines and perspectives suggested by scientists at the Asilomer conference became one of the origins of international and domestic regulatory frameworks on GMOs. The Molbot case bears similarities with this scientists’ effort found in the dialogue around GMOs and their embodiment of scientific autonomy to manage their potential impacts. Discussions for the enactment of the ethical principles of Molbot have been conducted by considering previous lessons and trying to gain deep insights into both positive and negative impacts by Molbot.

Here, it should be noted that the Molbot case differs from the Asilomer Conference’s GMO case because it included ELSI consideration with social scientists as part of the discussion from the start. The role of social scientists in conversations about social aspects of synthetic biology has been debated, and it was decided that they should play a more active role to encourage discussions on ELSI. Moreover, social scientists should become co-producers of knowledge of ELSI and RRI on emerging S&T through collaboration with scientists. This theme and requests for this practice are expressed with the term “post-ELSI” [22]. Actually, the STS and bioethics researchers gained an understanding of the motivation, values, and scientific interests of the Molbot researchers through continuous and frequent communication. This mutual understanding between the Molbot and STS communities has created the basis for further collaboration.

5 Conclusion

In the case presented here, the process for the enactment of the ethical principles of Molbot can be regarded as the appearance of scientific autonomy by Molbot researchers. The engagement of many researchers, including the younger generation, into continual discussions on ELSI fostered an awareness of the responsibility to society. At the same time, this process can be regarded as a co-production of new knowledge about ELSI and RRI through collaboration with people with different expertise. Through continuous and long-term dialogues, Molbot researchers, STS scholars, and bioethicists are reminded of the importance of mutual understanding based on respectful communication among distinct experts. This change in the participants’ awareness could be interpreted as a process of acquiring “neighbourliness” [22].

Even for emerging S&T, whose potential impact on society is unforeseeable, it would be possible to co-create a desirable scenario for future development by collaboration between researchers and social scientists in discussions to delve into various issues in specific applications from medicine to field use, and then by continuous technology assessment through honest dialogue with a wider range of stakeholders. Accumulating and integrating the current practices and discussions would bring about reflexive perspectives on communication and the respective roles of the Molbot researchers and collaborating researchers in social sciences and the humanities, progressing to valuable and equal collaboration and practices of “autonomy.” Thus, we argue that the case of Molbot can be interpreted as good practice of “post-ELSI” and RRI discussions to become a blueprint for other emerging S&T seeking a trusting relationship with society. However, the effectiveness of the trial for reflexive RRI practice from the very early stages of technological development in the current study can only be examined at the stage of implementation to the society. The present argument should be further evaluated in the future.