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Governance of Emerging Technology Conference Features Hastings Center Experts

Artificial intelligence, gene editing, synthetic biology – these are among the new technologies discussed at Governance of Emerging Technology 2017, organized by Arizona State University College of Law and cosponsored by The Hastings Center, which took place in Phoenix on May 17 – 19. Hastings Center scholars organized panels and gave talks.

Gregory Kaebnick participated in a plenary panel on that considered the governance challenges posed by gene drives, technologies that make genetic changes to an organism in a way that’s designed to spread the changes to all of the organism’s offspring, eventually throughout an entire population. For example, researchers could try to develop a gene drive to prevent a species of mosquito from carrying Zika or malaria.

The panel focused on how to think about the risks and uncertainties, the challenges of obtaining social license to release an organism containing a gene drive, and whether gene drives call for “novel ethical thinking.” Kaebnick argued for adopting a broadly precautionary approach to the governance of gene drives, drawing on an essay he co-authored in Science that made the case that precaution is a matter of moving forward carefully, not of halting the science.

Kaebnick also argued that people thinking about governance need to take up some of the questions about the human relationship to nature; although the big uses for gene drives that are now under consideration involve substantial public health benefit (such as preventing mosquito-borne infections), uses on the horizon could be aimed at smaller benefits – eliminating mosquitoes that bite humans, for instance – and even at aesthetic gains. “Those are uses that environmentalists will find especially troubling, and we need to find a way of heading them off,” he said.

Kaebnick also participated in a concurrent session panel, along with Michael Gusmano and two other scholars. Kaebnick elaborated on the concept of precaution, examining how it contrasts with and connects to cost-benefit analysis. Gusmano spoke about debates over cost-benefit analysis in the domain of health care policy, arguing that CBA often serves a precautionary function in that domain. “Historically in the U.S., the assumption has been that once the Food and Drug Administration approves a new technology and safe and effective, Medicare and most private health insurance companies will pay for it,” Gusmano said. “Calls for using economic evaluation are usually supported by those who believe that the current system leads to the overuse of technologies that offer little value. Opponents argue that the government should only consider the clinical benefits of a technology, not whether it is cost-effective. They fear that cost-effectiveness will inappropriately limit technology.”

Hastings Center senior advisor Wendell Wallach moderated panels on the responsible development and international governance of artificial intelligence.