Responsible innovation and the philosophy of technology

Several posts here have focused on the philosophy of technology (linklinklinklink). A simple definition of the philosophy of technology might go along these lines:

Technology may be defined broadly as the sum of a set of tools, machines, and practical skills available at a given time in a given culture through which human needs and interests are satisfied and the interplay of power and conflict furthered. The philosophy of technology offers an interdisciplinary approach to better understanding the role of technology in society and human life. The field raises critical questions about the ways that technology intertwines with human life and the workings of society. Do human beings control technology? For whose benefit? What role does technology play in human wellbeing and freedom? What role does technology play in the exercise of power? Can we control technology? What issues of ethics and social justice are raised by various technologies? How can citizens within a democracy best ensure that the technologies we choose will lead to better human outcomes and expanded capacities in the future?

One of the issues that arises in this field is the question of whether there are ethical principles that should govern the development and implementation of new technologies. (This issue is discussed further in an earlier post; link.)

One principle of technology ethics seems clear: policies and regulations are needed to protect the future health and safety of the public. This is the same principle that serves as the ethical basis of government regulation of current activities, justifying coercive rules that prevent pollution, toxic effects, fires, radiation exposure, and other clear harms affecting the health and safety of the public.

Another principle might be understood as exhortatory rather than compulsory, and that is the general recommendation that technologies should be pursued by private actors that make some positive contribution to human welfare. This principle is plainly less universal and obligatory than the “avoid harm” principle; many technologies are chosen because their inventors believe they will entertain, amuse, or otherwise please members of the public, and will thereby permit generation of profits. (Here is a discussion of the value of entertainment; link.)

A more nuanced exhortation is the idea that inventors and companies should subject their technology and product innovation research to broad principles of sustainability. Given that large technological change can potentially have very large environmental and collective effects, we might think that companies and inventors should pay attention to the large challenges our society faces, now and in the foreseeable future: addiction, obesity, CO2 production, plastic waste, erosion of privacy, spread of racist politics, fresh water depletion, and information disparities, to name several.

These principles fall within the general zone of the ethics of corporate social responsibility. Many companies pay lip service to the social-benefits principle and the sustainability principle, though it is difficult to see evidence of the effectiveness of this motivation. Business interests often seem to trump concerns for positive social effects and sustainability — for example, in the pharmaceutical industry and its involvement in the opioid crisis (link).

It is in the context of these reflections about the ethics of technology that I was interested to learn of an academic and policy field in Europe called “responsible innovation”. This is a network of academics, government officials, foundations, and non-profit organizations working together to try to induce more directionality in technology change (innovation). René von Schomberg and Jonathan Hankins’s recently published volume International Handbook on Responsible Innovation: A Global Resource gives an in-depth exposure to the thinking, research, and policy advocacy that this network has accumulated. A key actor in the advancement of this field has been the Bassetti Foundation (link) in Milan, which has made the topic of responsible innovation central to its mission for several decades. The Journal of Responsible Innovation provides a look at continuing research in this field.

The primary locus of discussion and applications in the field of RRI has been within the EU. There is not much evidence of involvement in the field from United States actors in this movement, though the Virtual Institute of Responsible Innovation at Arizona State University has received support from the US National Science Foundation (link).

Von Schomberg describes the scope and purpose of the RRI field in these terms:

Responsible Research and Innovation is a transparent, interactive process by which societal actors and innovators become mutually responsive to each other with a view to the (ethical) acceptability, sustainability and societal desirability of the innovation process and its marketable products (in order to allow a proper embedding of scientific and technological advances in our society). (2)

The definition of this field overlaps quite a bit with the philosophy and ethics of technology, but it is not synonymous. For one thing, the explicit goal of RRI is to help provide direction to the social, governmental, and business processes driving innovation. And for another, the idea of innovation isn’t exactly the same as “technology change”. There are social and business innovations that fall within the scope of the effort — for example, new forms of corporate management or new kinds of financial instruments — but which do not fall within the domain of technological innovations.

Von Schomberg has been a leading thinker within this field, and his contributions have helped to set the agenda for the movement. In his contribution to the volume he identifies six deficits in current innovation policy in Europe (all drawn from chapter two of the volume):

  1. Exclusive focus on risk and safety issues concerning new technologies under governmental regulations
  2. Market deficits in delivering on societal desirable innovations
  3. Aligning innovations with broadly shared public values and expectations
  4. A focus on the responsible development of technology and technological potentials rather than on responsible innovations
  5. A lack of open research systems and open scholarship as a necessary, but not sufficient condition for responsible innovation
  6. Lack of foresight and anticipative governance for the alternative shaping of innovation in sectors

Each of these statements involves very complex ideas about society-government-corporate relationships, and we may well come to judge that some of the recommendations made by Schomberg are more convincing than others. But the clarity of this statement of the priorities and concerns of the RRI movement is enormously valuable as a way of advancing debate on the issues.
The examples that von Schomberg and other contributors discuss largely have to do with large innovations that have sparked significant public discussion and opposition — nuclear power, GMO foods, nanotechnology-based products. These example focus attention on the later stages of scientific and technological knowledge when it comes to the point of introducing the technology into the public. But much technological innovation takes place at a much more mundane level — consumer electronics and software, enhancements of solar technology, improvements in electric vehicle technology, and digital personal assistants (Alexa, Siri), to name a few.

A defining feature of the RRI field is the explicit view that innovation is not inherently good or desirable (for example, in the contribution by Luc Soete in the volume). Contrary to the assumptions of many government economic policy experts, the RRI network is unified in criticism of the idea that innovation is always or usually productive of economic growth and employment growth. These observers argue instead that the public should have a role in deciding which technological options ought to be pursued, and which should not.

In reading the programmatic statements of purpose offered in the volume, it sometimes seems that there is a tendency to exaggerate the degree to which scientific and technological innovation is (or should be) a directed and collectively controlled process. The movement seems to undervalue the important role that creativity and invention play within the crucial fact of human freedom and fulfillment. It is an important moral fact that individuals have extensive liberties concerning the ways in which they use their talents, and the presumption needs to be in favor of their right to do so without coercive interference. Much of what goes on in the search for new ideas, processes, and products falls properly on the side of liberty rather than a socially regulated activity, and the proper relation of social policy to these activities seems to be one of respect for the human freedom and creativity of the innovator rather than a prescriptive and controlling one. (Of course some regulation and oversight is needed, based on assessments of risk and harm; but von Schomberg and others dismiss this moral principle as too limited.)

It sometimes seems as though the contributors slide too quickly from the field of government-funded research and development (where the public has a plain interest in “directing” the research at some level), to the whole ecology of innovation and discovery, whether public, corporate, or academic. As noted above, von Schomberg considers the governmental focus on harm and safety to be the “first deficit” — in other words, an insufficient basis for “guiding innovation”. In contrast, he wants to see public mechanisms tasked with “redirecting” technology innovations and industries. However, much innovation is the result of private initiative and funding, and it seems that this field appropriately falls outside of prescription by government (beyond normal harm-based regulatory oversight). Von Schomberg uses the phrase “a proper embedding of scientific and technological advances in society”; but this seems to be a worrisome overreach, in that it seems to imply that all scientific and technology research should be guided and curated by a collective political process.

This suggests that a more specific description of the goals of the movement would be helpful. Here is one possible specification:

  • Require government agencies to justify the funding and incentives that they offer in support of technology innovation based on an informed assessment of the public’s preferences;
  • Urge corporations to adopt standards to govern their own internal innovation investments to conform to acknowledged public concerns (environmental sustainability, positive contributions to health and safety of citizens and consumers, …);
  • Urge scientists and researchers to engage in public discussion of their priorities in scientific and technological research.
  • Create venues for open and public discussion of major technological choices facing society in the current century, leading to more articulate understanding of priorities and risks.

There is an interesting parallel here with the Japanese government’s efforts in the 1980s to guide investment and research and development resources into the highest priority fields to advance the Japanese economy. The US National Research Council study, 21st Century Innovation Systems for Japan and the United States: Lessons from a Decade of Change: Report of a Symposium (2009) (link), provides an excellent review of the strategies adopted by the United States and Japan in their efforts to stimulate technology innovation in chip production and high-end computers from the 1960s to the 1990s. These efforts were entirely guided by the effort to maintain commercial and economic advantage in the global marketplace. Jason Owen-Smith addresses the question of the role of US research universities as sites of technological research in Research Universities and the Public Good: Discovery for an Uncertain Futurelink.

The “responsible research and innovation” (RRI) movement in Europe is a robust effort to pose the question, how can public values be infused into the processes of technology innovation that have such a massive potential effect on public welfare? It would seem that a major aim of the RRI network is to help to inform and motivate commitments by corporations to principles of responsible innovation within their definitions of corporate social responsibility, which is unmistakably needed. It is worthwhile for U.S. policy experts and technology ethicists alike to pay attention to these debates in Europe, and the International Handbook on Responsible Innovation is an excellent place to begin.

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