What Do Disruptive Technologies Disrupt?

10 Jun 2021

Philip Brey, Professor of Philosophy of Technology at the Department of Philosophy at the University of Twente and STI expert, was a keynote speaker at the International Workshop on Controversies and Polarization on Disruptive Technologies, a hybrid meeting held virtually and in Granada, Spain, October 5-6, 2020. His address dealt with “Disruptive Technologies: Social, Moral and Ontological Consequences.” The following is an abridged version of a subsequent interview.

STI Experts

Professor Philip Brey has led various projects with European funding such as SHERPA and SIENNA, and has recently started to lead a huge project about the Ethics of Socially Disruptive Technologies that has a combined budget of 27 million euros granted by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research and several universities.

What is ‘socially disruptive technology’? Can there be different types of disruption?

Socially disruptive technologies are technologies that do not just change the specific domains or practices for which they were designed, but that change our life in a much broader sense. They are technologies that transform everyday life, social institutions, cultural practices, and the organization of the economy, business, and work. They may even affect our fundamental beliefs, rights, and values. Historical examples of such technologies include the printing press, the steam engine, electric lighting, the computer, and the Internet. Now, we have AI, robotics, next-generation genomics, nanotechnology, and many others.

Indeed, new technologies can be socially disruptive in many ways, and part of our investigation [Ethics of Socially Disruptive Technologies program] is to investigate various dimensions of disruption. We are currently constructing a new impact assessment model for this, and we aim to investigate, particularly, disruptions to the basic functioning of society, to individual life and behavior, to the natural environment, and to basic concepts and beliefs.

In various publications, you have analyzed the challenges of addressing the ethical issues of emerging technologies. Uncertainty about future technological developments is a major obstacle in this regard. The Anticipatory Technology Ethics (ATE) model is one of your contributions in this respect. Briefly, what are its main characteristics?

The ATE model is intended to allow for comprehensive ethical assessments of emerging technologies. By a comprehensive assessment, I mean one that considers not only general ethical issues in a new technology field, but also various applied issues that are related to products and applications coming out of that field. Because we often do not know yet what these products and applications will be, we need to anticipate possible and plausible trajectories that the new technology can take. This is done using foresight analysis. ATE combines foresight analysis and ethical analysis to identify, analyze and evaluate ethical issues at three levels: the general level at which a technology is defined, the level of concrete artifacts and products, and the level of application and use, in particular contexts and by particular users.

For example, assessing robotics, this approach would tell you not only which general ethical issues relate to robotics, but also the ethical issues in relation to specific types of robots (humanoid robots, social robots, swarm robots and micro-robots), and the ethical issues in relation to specific uses (robots in healthcare, robots in defense, and robots in law enforcement). You can also choose to limit your analysis in ATE to only one type of artifact, or one domain of application, which is part of its strength.

Many disruptive technologies may lead to major transformations in a future time that is difficult to foresee. Are you interested in combining the ATE approach with the analysis of socially disruptive technologies? What do you think are the technologies that will cause the greatest social impact in the medium term (say about 25 years)?

ATE is well suited to be integrated in our new research program, which expect to happen in the coming years. We are currently canvassing which new technologies we assess as being socially disruptive. We have identified a total of sixty so far. Some examples are: Internet-of-Things, Blockchain, sensor technology, augmented reality, genome editing, synthetic biology, brain-computer interfaces, carbon dioxide removal technologies, smart grids, and smart materials. Some of these, of course, will have broader scope and impact than others. Certainly, AI will have a big impact in the future, in combination with robotics and data analytics. Internet-of-Things will as well, as will genome editing, neurotechnology, new climate change technologies, additive manufacturing and new materials, to name only some.

This context of technological disruption is characterized by a growing interaction between humans and artifacts (human-machine-interaction), blurring the boundaries and enhancing our comprehension as socio-technical environments. What consequences does this growing hybridization have, in your opinion, and how can it change our conception of moral agency and human identity? Linked to this, can we speak of moral progress? What would be the most relevant elements of moral disruption in this new context?

This is certainly one of the key questions for our new program. While technology has always extended human agency, we are now coming to a point at which the relation between technology and humans gets so intimate, where technology is (semi)permanently attached on or inserted into the body that we are witnessing a hybridization and cybernetization of humans that we have not witnessed before. This has potentially profound consequences for human identity, agency, and morality, and the very concept of human nature. We have to ask for each new technology that has such an intimate relation to human beings: what are the consequences for these notions, and will they still allow us to speak of an independent, autonomous human subject capable of having its own thoughts and making its own choices rather than them being determined by technology? There is certainly a risk that this hybridization will lead to an abdication of moral responsibility by individuals and new responsibility gaps in society. This would not be moral progress. However, if technologies are designed to support human autonomy and liberty, then they may well end up supporting moral progress. These are very complicated moral and design decisions that would have to be taken in relation to new technologies. They especially play a role for neurotechnologies, AI, robotics, and wearable technologies, as well as gene editing technologies that may affect the way we think and act.

Finally, there is no doubt that disruptive technologies have a huge transformative impact on politics as well. Are liberal democracies prepared to absorb this impact? How do disruptive technologies affect the political system? Do we need a new political philosophy for this new context?

This is an increasingly pertinent question, and one that is central in one of the four research lines of our Ethics of Socially Disruptive Technologies program. The disruptiveness of technologies can extend to the existing institutional and political order. These resulting disruptions can be for good or for ill. So far, the Internet has had by far the greatest impact on liberal democracies compared to any other technology, as it has revolutionized the way that people collect and disseminate information and communicate with each other, processes that are vital to the functioning of any political system. The initial expectation was that the Internet would strengthen democracy by making information and communication more democratic. Yet, the rise of commercial social media platforms in combination with data analytics and AI technology has come to support misinformation, radicalization and political manipulation in ways that now threaten liberal democracy. In our program, we will examine these developments and ways to counteract them, as well as other ways in which emerging technologies disrupt and transform political systems.

Read the full interview by Jon Rueda Etxebarria, La Caixa INPhNIT Fellow at University of Granada, and Txetxu Ausín, from Grupo de Ética Aplicada at Instituto de Filosofía (CSIC), reproduced here with permission.

Professor Brey participated in STI’s ‘Technology and the Good Society’ experts meeting, which examined the role that modern technological advances play in shaping society, for better or worse.