The ethics of engineering planetary change

Here’s the opening of a fascinating article in this morning’s New York Times:

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 research.”

There’s much more here to chew on . . . .

About Thomas Mayo

AA-Law(Faculty)
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