Eight great technology debates

With a speech from the Chancellor, funding in the Autumn Statement, and now a speech and pamphlet from David Willetts, the notion of a focus on ‘eight great technologies’ that offer opportunities for the future is firmly embedded in the UK research policy landscape.

Alongside the investment, new and old, to support the development and exploitation of the eight, there is also an opportunity to start conversations and debates about these technologies with wider society. Do they command support across the population? Are there particular trajectories within the technologies that people would like to see followed, or not followed? And how are decisions about those choices going to be made?

So here are some of the questions about the eight technologies that I think we should be exploring in the coming months.

The big data revolution and energy-efficient computing. There are key questions around privacy and identity to be addressed for this technology. How will we balance the risks to personal privacy against the undoubted benefits of further exploitation of data? Who will make those choices? There are also issues about the costs and ethics of making research data available, initially explored in an RCUK dialogue, that merit further work.

Satellites and commercial applications of space. Privacy concerns emerge here too, as the observational capability of satellite technology increases. This area, like many of the others, has a dual use dilemma which we need to explore. Are their military applications of some of this technology that need to be restricted?

Robotics and autonomous systems. If autonomous systems are to become more ubiquitous, how do we ensure that people trust the systems. What needs to be in place before people will agree to get aboard an autonomously controlled passenger plane, or have surgery conducted by a remotely located surgeon controlling a robot? There are also big dual use issues here too, especially with the potential military applications of autonomous systems.

Life sciences, genomics and synthetic biology. There is already some excellent public dialogue [With a speech from the Chancellor, funding in the Autumn Statement, and now a speech and pamphlet from David Willetts, the notion of a focus on ‘eight great technologies’ that offer opportunities for the future is firmly embedded in the UK research policy landscape.

Alongside the investment, new and old, to support the development and exploitation of the eight, there is also an opportunity to start conversations and debates about these technologies with wider society. Do they command support across the population? Are there particular trajectories within the technologies that people would like to see followed, or not followed? And how are decisions about those choices going to be made?

So here are some of the questions about the eight technologies that I think we should be exploring in the coming months.

The big data revolution and energy-efficient computing. There are key questions around privacy and identity to be addressed for this technology. How will we balance the risks to personal privacy against the undoubted benefits of further exploitation of data? Who will make those choices? There are also issues about the costs and ethics of making research data available, initially explored in an RCUK dialogue, that merit further work.

Satellites and commercial applications of space. Privacy concerns emerge here too, as the observational capability of satellite technology increases. This area, like many of the others, has a dual use dilemma which we need to explore. Are their military applications of some of this technology that need to be restricted?

Robotics and autonomous systems. If autonomous systems are to become more ubiquitous, how do we ensure that people trust the systems. What needs to be in place before people will agree to get aboard an autonomously controlled passenger plane, or have surgery conducted by a remotely located surgeon controlling a robot? There are also big dual use issues here too, especially with the potential military applications of autonomous systems.

Life sciences, genomics and synthetic biology. There is already some excellent public dialogue](http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/society/dialogue/activities/bbuh-public-workshop.aspx) that has been carried out. What we need now is to explore further the issues raised, steer research directions in response and put in place solid governance mechanisms. The recent Nuffield Council on Bioethics report on Emerging Biotechnologies is a great place to start.

Regenerative medicine. This technology raises a number of issues to explore. For example, is a focus on regenerative medicine technologies the right way to target resources when there are still many people across the world who don’t live long enough to need regenerating? More generally, there are also questions of affordability and the equitable distribution of the benefits.

Agri-science. Well of course there is still the debate about the use of modern biotechnology in agriculture which is as yet unresolved. This needs to be part of a broader debate about the range of approaches that are available to increase agricultural yield, efficiency and sustainability. There are also questions, already explored in a survey about public attitudes to food security, about where the balance of the research effort should lie in addressing the food challenge.

Advanced materials and nano-technology. Environmental impact is a key question to be explored here. How sure do we need to be about the impacts of novel materials in the environment before we allow their use? How do we consider end-of-life impacts up front? There are also questions about resource use; will these new materials make us more or less efficient, and who decides the answer to this question?

Energy and its storage. Debates about energy generation technologies are already underway, and there is a common thread. While the benefits of cheap, low-carbon energy will be spread evenly across society, some of the downsides are very patchy in terms of their geographic spread. We need to work out ways of addressing this issue in parallel to new technological advances.

These are just some of the issues, but they already represent a challenging agenda for debate and engagement. As the research, and knowledge exchange and commercialization moves on apace, we need to make time and space for eight great technology debates too.


Written on January 29, 2013

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