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Are There Ethical Limits to What Science Can Achieve or Should Pursue?

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Are There Ethical Limits to What Science Can Achieve or Should Pursue?

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As a computer scientist and data scientist, this is a nuanced question that requires prinicpled treatment. There are multiple factors that determine the answer to this prompt. The path that I take is going back to first principles and presenting a framework for evaluation.

As a computer scientist and data scientist, this is a nuanced question that requires prinicpled treatment. There are multiple factors that determine the answer to this prompt. The path that I take is going back to first principles and presenting a framework for evaluation.

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Are There Ethical Limits to What Science Can Achieve or Should Pursue?

  1. 1. Are there ethical limits to what science can achieve and should pursue? Dr Tyrone Grandison Global Young Academy New Voices in Science, Engineering & Medicine The Data-Driven Institute
  2. 2. Are there ethical limits to what science can achieve and should pursue?
  3. 3. Are there ethical limits to what science can achieve? Are there ethical limits to what science should pursue?
  4. 4. Are there ethical limits to what science can achieve? Are there ethical limits to what science should pursue?
  5. 5. EthicalBehavior : the application of moral principles in a given situation.
  6. 6. Morals : standards of behavior based on principles of right and wrong.
  7. 7. Are there situations where the principles of right and wrong limit what science can achieve? Are there situations where the principles of right and wrong limit what science should pursue?
  8. 8. Computer Science Data Science Ecosystem Intent of Application
  9. 9. Ecosystem Business Legal Technology Society Source: Grandison, T., Davis, J.: The impact of industry constraints on model-driven data disclosure controls. In: Proc. of the 1st International Workshop on Model-Based Trustworthy Health Information Systems (MOTHIS) 2007, Nashville, Tennessee, USA (September 2007)
  10. 10. “I advance it, as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.”
  11. 11. Intent of Application USE CONSEQUENCES
  12. 12. Are there situations where the principles of right and wrong limit what science can achieve? Are there situations where the principles of right and wrong limit what science should pursue? Technically, NO Yes, Definitely
  13. 13. Thank you Dr Tyrone Grandison Twitter: @tyrgr

Editor's Notes

  • Thank you.
  • As a computer and data scientist/researcher, my first task is always to break the problem statement down into its most basic elements and then clearly define any terms or concepts that may open to multiple interpretations.

  • When we break this prompt down, we see that there are two questions that we must answer.

    The first is “Are there ethical limits to what science can achieve?”

    The second is “Are there ethical limits to what science should pursue?”
  • However, we also see that the term “ethical” needs to be defined, because it is one of those terms that is assumed to be understood and for which different groups may have differing interpretations.
  • At its core, Ethics and ethical behavior is the application of moral principles in a given situation.

    And now, we have introduced a new nuanced term – that needs clarification – the idea of morals, moral principles
  • Morals refer to the standards of behavior based on principles of right and wrong.
  • Now our prompts become:

    “Are there situations where the principles of right and wrong limit what science can achieve?

    &

    “Are there situations where the principles of right and wrong limit what science should pursue?

    Which I find are more tractable questions to get a handle on.
  • My work across industries and sectors over the last decade, has highlighted that the ethical nature of computing and data solutions – built for the greater social good - is dependent on 1) the Ecosystem in which they are developed and 2) on the intent of use.

    And this is the framework that allows me to answer the questions in the prompt.
  • When I refer to ecosystem, I am speaking to the Business, Legal, Technology, Societal factors that bring about the creation of new scientific discoveries and advances.

    More importantly, I am referring to the dominant factor or factors that produce (or facilitate) scientific innovation.
  • Let me give you an example. Let’s look at Thomas Jefferson – one of the Founding Fathers of the American experiment.

    Jefferson not only wrote about human equality of the Declaration of Independence, but also penned “Notes on the State of Virginia” – which was written in response to questions from France about the American colonies (in 1781) where he purported the inferiority of blacks.

    This led two centuries of Federal funding aligning with medical exploration to determine the differences between the races, on both sides of the Atlantic.

    The horrific treatment of blacks in medicine has led to a myriad of scientific innovation.

    Here the business and political factors created an ecosystem for this all to be possible and were the primary drivers of science.

    Was an ethical limit breached? Should this avenue of investigation been explored?
  • Another example is the HeLa cell (on your right), which is the only human cells to survive in vitro. 

    And has enabled the creation of polio vaccines, HPV vaccines, facilitated gene mapping, and is fundamental to lots of Nobel Laureate work.

    The origin story of the Hela cell is that In 1951, a 31-year-old African-American woman, Henrietta Lacks, had her cancerous cells examined by doctors at John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland who did not receive her consent for secondary use of her cells.

    Even more interesting, for two decades they hid the origin story of the cells (and even attributed it to a fictional Helen Lane)

    Here, business factors created an ecosystem that drove the science.

    Was an ethical limit breached? Should this avenue of investigation been pursued?
  • When it comes to the “Intent of Application”, what do I mean?

    I am speaking about “How the science will be used?” about “What domain is the science being developed in and for?”

    I am talking about thinking “the possible consequences” beforehand

    An obvious example, from Physics, is the creation of the hydrogen bomb. Was an ethical limit breached in its creation? Should that line of scientific investigation been explored?

    In my field, the example that is currently relevant is Artificial Intelligence, specifically Machine Learning

    Machine Learning – the application of statistical algorithms on data by a practitioner in order produce insight.
  • Machine Learning is being used to more easily detect cardiac arrhthmia.
  • Machine Leaning is being used to help people regain control of their limbs.
  • Machine learning is enabling more efficient diagnosis of a myriad of diseases.
  • Also, Machine Learning is being used to influence the outcome of referendum and elections.

    Above the Alexander Nix, former CEO of Cambridge Analytica
  • Cambridge Analytica was able to effectively steer the outcome of major voting efforts in Trinidad & Tobago, India, the United Kingdom, Malta, Mexico, Kenya, Australia, the United States.

    They were able to impact more than 100 election campaigns, in over 30 countries, spanning five continents.

    For each of those applications, ask yourself - Was an ethical limit breached? Should this Artificial Intelligence, spefically ML, been pursued as an area of scientific exploration?


  • Which brings us back to our original questions.

    Are there ……. can achieve? Technically no. The science / the technology is neutral. It does not have inherent good or bad attributes. Ethics appears when we examine the ecosystem that facilitates science creation and when we evaluate how science is to be used..

    Should we be more mindful when we engage in scientific exploration? Definitely. 
    Are there ……. should pursue? Yes. Definitely Yes. We have lots of examples, going back centuries, that provide evidence that this is the case.
  • With that, I thank you for your time.

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