What is the Challenge?
We now have the power to change the very nature of the human species and the planet itself. Through converging advances in the life sciences, physical sciences, and information technologies, the world has entered an age of unprecedented scientific and technological prowess. These new powers hold great promise for enhancing health and well-being – but we must be able to make good on the promise. As Stephen Hawking puts it, “Our future is a race between the growing power of technology and the wisdom with which to use it.” Humanity’s challenge is to find that wisdom.
What’s at stake?
Consider these examples of growing human technological power and the challenges they pose:
Human Gene Editing: In Spring 2015, the world learned about a revolutionary new genetic technology, CRISPR/Cas9. It gives scientists the power to change, or edit, the genes of plants and animals – including humans – more cheaply, easily , and precisely. New medical therapies will likely emerge and bring enormous benefits. But this new power also raises ethical concerns, including the potential to change the “germline” genes that are passed from one generation to the next. With gene editing, we might create “enhanced” babies and alter the course of human evolution. And, if we make such changes, we need to be sure that all people will have fair access to the benefits and that the enhancements truly advance human flourishing.
Gene Editing in Nonhuman Animals and Plants: Many extraordinary uses are also possible for animals and plants. Extinct species could be “resurrected” be recreating their lost genomes. Existing species, such as mosquitoes, could be altered, or exterminated, to achieve huge public health gains – or simply to make the natural world more pleasing. These prospects raise immediate questions about safety and also vast, long-term questions about what kind of relationship we humans should have to nature.
Artificial Intelligence: AI is making its way into daily life in some ways that are obvious – think self-driving cars. But much more of its presence is hidden in machines that collect data about us from our smart phones and purchases, algorithms that formulate conclusions about our health and lifestyle choices, and corporations and governments that use data about us to influence our behavior. As AI advances, machines in the military and in health care could be programmed to take on life-and-death decisions. How can we ensure that these systems are beneficial, safe, controllable and aligned with human values? Should we program machines to take on the kinds of morally significant decisions once reserved for human beings? If so, who will be responsible for the machines’ choices and actions?
What needs to be done?
Facts alone will not provide answers. We need to identify the values at stake, listen to one another’s perspectives, and craft approaches that can be incorporated into practice, policy, and good governance.
Together we need to ensure that:
- Scientific progress is made carefully with respect for human research participants and the environment
- Resulting technologies support human flourishing
- Technologies are safe and respectful of human rights, and their benefits are distributed fairly
To accomplish those over-arching goals, there needs to be:
- Research investment in identifying and analyzing the social and ethical implications of emerging technologies
- New ideas and strategies to ensure the responsible conduct of science
- Preparation of journalists so they are able to communicate well about these issues
- Engagement with health policy makers, legislators, and other opinion leaders, so they are able to make fully informed decisions
- Development of guidelines and standards of practice to shape the use of various technologies in specific contexts
This is the critical moment. Decisions will be made in the next few years that will determine the parameters under which these promising technologies will be deployed. In the absence of sensible guidelines, there are dangers coming from two directions:
- Ill-conceived research and applications that have not been wisely vetted could fuel the public’s distrust of science, creating a backlash that could cripple beneficial work for decades.
- Conversely, overly restrictive regulations could also serve to stifle promising innovation.
Why The Hastings Center?
- We are the experts – our staff and approximately 200 Hastings Center Fellows around the world are highly recognized for their expertise in identifying values, navigating value conflicts, deepening understanding, and developing consensus recommendations.
- We have a track record of shaping health and science policy and practice through our books, reports, policy initiatives, conferences and other outlets.
- We are widely recognized for our credibility and intellectual rigor.
- We are a vital resource to the nation’s journalists and opinion leaders.
- We are independent, trustworthy, and nonpartisan.
Established in 1969, The Hastings Center has been studying the social and ethical issues in health care, science and technology for 50 years. Our research projects and our journals promote careful, respectful, and creative thinking for people with diverse views and expertise. Through our scholars’ own writing and speaking, and through the work of the many other people who participate in our projects or submit articles to our publications, we shape ideas that influence key opinion leaders, including health policy makers, regulators, lawyers, legislators, and judges.
Our analyses also deeply influence professional practice: from end-of-life care to psychiatric practice to immigrant health care, we have helped to shape the standards of practice adopted by physicians, nurses, and lawyers. For example, the Mayor of New York City recently adopted recommendations we developed to pilot new models for immigrant health care; The Hastings Center’s Guidelines for Decisions on Life-sustaining Treatments and Care near the End of Life have shaped the norms for end-of-life care in hospitals around the world and were cited by the U.S. Supreme Court.
As these examples illustrate, in addition to our work on emerging technologies which is the focus of this brochure, the Center also works on policy and practice related to health care, the protection of human research participants, and the responsible conduct of science.
Unaffiliated with any medical school or university, The Hastings Center is the only freestanding, independent research institution doing original scholarly work on the social and ethical implications of health, life sciences research and emerging technologies. That independence gives us the ability to view the biomedical research enterprise with unbiased eyes and is crucial to our reputation as a nonpartisan, honest broker.
Here’s How You Can Help
Now is the time to strengthen The Hastings Center program areas. The number of issues that need attention has grown exponentially, so we too must grow to meet those needs. We seek to expand our financial capacity to play a vital role across all of these complex emerging technologies. In particular, the Center seeks to increase unrestricted support to support our efforts to develop and pursue our own research agenda. Our goal is to raise $2 million in unrestricted funds.
Your investment today in these efforts will enable Hastings to apply its time-tested methods and respected scholarship to achieving pragmatic guidelines for policymakers and deepening public understanding of these complex issues. With your help, our work will yield enormous returns in human health, responsible science, environmental quality, economic growth and innovation.