How to Address Ethics of Emerging ICTs: A critique of Human Research Ethics Reviews and the Search for Alternative Ethical Approaches and Governance Models

Bernd Carsten Stahl


The purpose of this paper is to explore how ethical issues arising from emerging technologies can currently be addressed using the mechanism of ethical review, which dominates the approach to ethics on the European level. The paper discusses which blind spots arise due to this approach and ends with a discussion of alternative and complementary approaches.

The paper arises from the EU FP7 project Ethical Issues of Emerging ICT Applications (ETICA). ETICA ran from 04/2009 to 05/2011 ( Its main focus was on exploring which emerging ICTs can be reasonably expected to become relevant in the next 10 to 15 years, to explore their ethical consequences and propose ways of addressing these. The current abstract gives a brief review of the approach and findings of the project and then concentrates on the way ethical issues are currently addressed in technical research in the EU, namely by ethics review. The abstract argues that this approach will be incapable of dealing with a significant number of ethical issues identified by ETICA and it will discuss other ways of doing so. The rest of the abstract develops this argument in some more depth.

In order to assess whether processes of ethics governance will be fit for purpose, the first task is to come to a sound understanding of which technologies are likely to emerge. The methodology employed to identify emerging ICTs was a structured discourse analysis of documents containing visions of future technologies. Two types of documents were analysed: 1) high level governmental and international policy and funding documents and 2) documents by research institutions.

The grid of analysis used to explore these documents is shown in the following figure:
Data analysis found more than 100 technologies, 70 application examples and 40 artefacts . These were synthesised into the following list of emerging ICTs:

  • Affective Computing
  • Ambient Intelligence
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Bioelectronics
  • Cloud Computing
  • Future Internet
  • Human-machine symbiosis
  • Neuroelectronics
  • Quantum Computing
  • Robotics
  • Virtual / Augmented Reality

By “technology” we mean a high-level socio-technical system that has the potential to significantly affect the way humans interact with the world.

Having identified likely emerging ICTs, the next task was to explore which ethical issues these are likely to raise. In order to identify likely ethical issues of emerging ICTs, a literature analysis of the ICT ethics literature from 2003 was undertaken. This started out with a novel bibliometric approach that mapped the proximity of different concepts in the ICT ethics literature. The following figure is a graphical representation of this bibliometric analysis:
Using this bibliometric analysis as a starting point, a comprehensive analysis of the ICT ethics literature was undertaken for each technology.

The following mind map represents the headings of the ethical issues identified for the different technologies:
Figure 3: Ethical issues of emerging ICTS

The ethical analysis showed that there are numerous ethical issues that are discussed with regards to the technologies. The number and detail of these ethical issues varies greatly. This variation is caused by the differing levels of detail and length of time of discussion of the technologies. Several recurring issues arise, notably those related to:

• privacy,

• data protection,

• intellectual property,

• security.

In addition to these, there were numerous ethical issues that are less obvious and currently not regulated. These include:

• autonomy, freedom, agency,

• possibility of persuasion or coercion,

• responsibility, liability,

• the possibility of machine ethics

• access, digital divides

• power issues

• consequences of technology for our view of humans

• conceptual issues (e.g. notions of emotions, intelligence),

• link between and integration of ethics into law,

• culturally different perceptions of ethics.

This non-comprehensive list shows that there are numerous ethical issues we can expect to arise.

In order to motivate policy development, the relevance and severity of these issues were evaluated. Evaluation of the emerging ICTs and their ethical issues was done from four different perspectives:

• Law:

The analysis was based on the principles of human dignity, equality and the rule of law. A review of 182 EU legal documents revealed that the legal implications of emerging technologies were not adequately reflected.

• (Institutional) ethics:

The earlier ethical analysis was contrasted by looking at opinions and publications of European and national ethics panels or review bodies. The review furthermore covered the implied normative basis of technology ethics in the EU.

• Gender:

A review of the gender and technology literature showed that in the case of five technologies such gender implications had already been raised in the literature.

• Technology assessment:

This analysis asked how far developed the ICTs are and what their prospects of realisation are. The expected benefits and possible side effects were discussed as well as the likelihood of controversy arising from the different technologies.

This literature-based analysis was supplemented and validated by an expert evaluation workshop. The evaluation found that several of the technologies are so closely related that they should be treated in conjunction. Building on the criteria of likelihood of coming into existence and raising ethical debate, the following ranking was suggested:

1. Ambient Intelligence

2. Augmented and virtual reality

3. Future Internet

4. Robotics and Artificial Intelligence and Affective computing

5. Neuroelectronics and Bioelectronics and Human-Machine Symbiosis

6. Cloud Computing

7. Quantum Computing

This ranking will allow for the prioritisation of activities and policies.

Ethics is described as an important part of technical research in the EU. The European Union is based on shared values as laid out in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and implemented in the Europe 2020 and other strategies and policies. Information and communication technologies (ICTs) are needed to achieve numerous policy objectives.

It is therefore important to ensure that development and use of ICTs lead to consequences that are compatible with European values. ICT research projects funded by the EU 7th Framework Programme have to reflect on ethical issues and how to resolve them. This is currently verified by an ethics checklist. This checklist is filled in by project proposers and evaluated by technical experts during the evaluation of the project. If these experts flag the project up as ethically relevant, then it is reviewed by an ethics review panel.

In order to understand whether this approach is suitable for dealing with the ethical issues, the issues were classified as follows:
Figure 4: Top level categories of ethical issues in emerging ICTs.

A more detailed analysis of the last two, social consequences and impact on individuals can be seen in the following figure:
Figure 5: Categories of ethical issues related to impact on individuals and social consequences

The colour coding in this figure refers to the question whether existing ethics processes are likely to pick up these issues and deal with them in a satisfactory manner. Green means that these are established issues that the ethics checklist and subsequent review are likely to identify. Issues depicted in yellow are less clear and red issues are unlikely to be addressed by the current approach.

Having thus established that the EU’s current way of dealing with ethical issues is unlikely to be able to satisfactorily deal with all problems and does not measure up to the EU’s rhetoric, the next question is how this can be addressed. The full paper will go through the computer ethics literature and explore whether alternative approaches offer more promising avenues of addressing these issues.

Overall, the paper will contribute to a theoretically sound and practically relevant way of understanding, evaluating and dealing with ethics in emerging technologies.