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Learning Ethics from Science Fiction

Creation 2.0, by Jamais CascioThe more powerful our technologies become, the more critical it is that technology developers approach their tasks in an ethical way. Not just the professional ethics of avoiding fraud and so forth, but socially ethical -- recognizing the implications of their research on fellow citizens and the planet. Teaching the philosophy of ethics to students more comfortable with quantifiable data and experimentation can be challenging, however. Recognizing this, Rosalyn Berne at the University of Virginia and Joachim Schummer at the University of South Carolina offer a different approach in a new paper in the Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society: use science fiction.

Berne and Schummer aren't looking at the broad scope of scientific research, however -- they're particularly interested in the emering field of nanotechnology. They're both well-versed in the field, and are well-regarded by nanotech analysts. In "Teaching Societal and Ethical Implications of Nanotechnology to Engineering Students through Science Fiction," (pre-print version available here - PDF) Berne and Schummer explain why the study of ethics is particularly important to the engineers and researchers making the nanotech breakthroughs:

[Nanotechnology's] unknown and potentially substantial harms and benefits, the risks and opportunities it represents to social, cultural, and material life warrants immediate and careful ethical reflection. The effort to engage and develop an ethics for nanotechnology complements other efforts to explore the moral dimensions of the scientific and technological transformations of society...
... yet there is at least one factor that may at this point distinguish nanotechnology ethics from other areas of engineering ethics. Most nanotechnology pursuits are still in the research, if not visionary, stage and have not emerged as actual development. No one really knows where the initiatives will lead, or what will be the course of nanotechnology research and development.

Since the ethical questions arising from nanotechnology are, at least in part, still speculative, Berne and Schummer propose the use of speculative fiction as a catalyst for engaging the potentially dramatic implications of molecular engineering.

Berne and Schummer are careful to keep away from stereotyped presentations of the "mad scientist" -- the goal isn't to demonize science, or declare a priori that the technological development is unethical. Instead, they suggest works that use advanced but relatively plausible (in the long-term) types of nanotechnology as their settings, with both costly and beneficial manifestations. Their goal is clear, and entirely appropriate:

We would recommend, instead, writings that more subtly bring to light the ambiguities and complexities of future social and moral life, which are hauntingly plausible under the influence of nanotechnology. Supplementary to the technical education, engineering ethics should make students aware of the complexity of human society, the sensitivity of the environment, and the complex relationship that exists between technology, humans and the environment.

Their suggested works, The Nanotech Chroniclesby Michael Flynn and The Diamond Ageby Neal Stephenson, present very different visions of what an advanced nanotech era might look like. I've read them both; I found the Flynn book to be very uneven (not surprising, as it's a collection of short stories), but greatly enjoyed The Diamond Age. (I would also add Linda Nagata's 1995 The Bohr Maker,which explores some of the political issues of emerging nanotech.)

What's somewhat surprising about these choices is that they are relatively dated. The plausibility of science fiction, especially technology-focused stories, can be dependent upon the most recent developments in a field. The choice of older books may be somewhat dangerous, as the target audience -- the engineering and science students needing some ethical guidance -- may get hung up on the elements of the books now considered to be impossible or highly unlikely, and miss the larger question of the ethics and implications. Unfortunately, nanotechnology is somewhat past its sell-by date for science fiction stories, having been eclipsed by transhumanism and the singularity as the dilemma-du-jour; in more recent stories, nanotechnology is no longer the focus, and is a background assumption.

This doesn't mean that books without an explicit nanotech focus would have little to teach in the way of scientific or techological ethics. On the contrary -- they could reinforce the concept that technological innovation is part of a larger social spectrum, and the issues that arise in one field can be meaningful in another.

And that's the underlying lesson here. Science and technology do not exist outside a social context, and the people engaged in these fields need to be aware that their efforts have implications beyond the pages of academic journals. To their credit, many of the people I've spoken to working in this area are paying attention to the need for resonsibility; unfortunately, too many more can't see the need. Speculative fiction can help to make that connection.


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Comments (7)

Stefan Jones:

Greg Bear has written some crackerjack SF in which nanotech figures. The stuff is more than just Miracle Plot Powder in his books; assemblers require fuel, and produce waste heat.

The one that springs to mind is "SLANT."

Advanced nanotechnology and other related scientific advances was one of the reasons I stopped reading as much science fiction as I used to. The stuff, assuming it's remotely plausible, just seems too plastic to me for an author to wrap an entertaining story around.

Perhaps what might still interest me is a story about the legal issues that might surround advanced nanotechnology once it's developed. If you think digital media has made an utter mess of current intellectual property law, just consider the potential to make perfect copies of the Mona Lisa out of ordinary vegetable oil and a few trace metals.

The more spacey lawyers out there are probably shuddering at the prospect now.


Ben Bova's Moonrise and its sequels have a relatively near-future nanotech as a major plot element.

Stefan Jones:

I know where you're coming from, Pace. The problem is that nanotech was, until very recently, filling the role of the Latest Miraculous Technology.

When I was a teen, the big thing was space colonies. There were lots of novels *about* space colonies, and others kind of retrofitted them in to appear more contemporary. In the 1950s and into the 60s, "psi" was the big thing either wrote about, or felt compelled to at least mention.

The trouble with fads like this is that SF based on them really *doesn't* do a great job of exploring the real world implications. Asimov's carefully crafted "three laws" stories, for example, really can't teach us a damn thing about how robots will change society. Those late-70s novels about space colonies look corny or creepy now. And early fiction about nanotech, being based on breathless anything-is-possible hype, are not going to be of much use in teaching us how to deal with the technologies being developed now.

At *worst,* these early tales give a delusional hope of a techno-rapture that will solve all of our problems.

The good news is that SF authors eventually calm down and work their way past the hype. In _Schismatrix,_ Bruce Sterling shows us one space colony that has become a squalid eco-catastrophe. The Greg Bear novel I mention above sets what seem like very reasonable limits on nanotechnology.

Pace Arko:

Stefan, yeah, I think that's sort of what I'm getting at. There is a sort of utopian phase that science fiction authors go through where some new technology, emerging from the labs of the real world, or some new social development, fresh from the day's headlines, seems to render all the old conflicts moot. But utopian stories are rather boring to read.

You're right though, eventually the authors learn a little more, realize that the new stuff doesn't fix everything and that it also creates new surprises and problems and, they settle down and the stories get interesting again.

I should qualify my previous comment a bit. I still read some science fiction and, even though I'm not a chemist or molecular biologist, I think advanced nanotechnology is possible.

I'd still like to see a short story, a legalistic science fiction, about the reform of intellectual property law. IP law makes my brain whimper, it seems to me like intellectual cornstarch solution.

Stefan Jones:

Sounds like something that Cory Doctorow might write.

Kevin Hurley:

Is it possible that in the creation of the techno infrastructure that we ourselves are recreated , in other words, are we presently being cloned?


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