New Ethics in Technology Forum addresses moral quandaries in science


Anna Vazhaeparambil

Six sophomores, including Ethics in Technology Forum co-founders Sidra Xu and Jason Lin, engage in discussion around a table. The first Ethics in Technology meeting was held on Sept. 27.

by Anna Vazhaeparambil, Reporter

In early December 2017, an unconscious and dying patient was rushed into the Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, Florida. The Washington Post reported that as doctors hurried to treat the man, they were surprised to discover the words “Do Not Resuscitate” tattooed across his chest with what seemed to be his signature. The medical team was forced to halt treatment in the face of this ethical dilemma. Should they honor the message, and not ‘resuscitate,’ or revive, the patient, or should they not take it seriously? Although the doctors first decided to not respect the tattoo due to being unsure of its legitimacy and the gravity of the life-and-death situation, they eventually spoke to an ethics consultant and made the hard decision to do nothing to save him, believing it was what the man would have wanted.

But would you have been able to make that same choice? Would you have let the man die without his verbal confirmation, even if that might have been what he wanted, when you would have been able to help him? What would have been the right thing to do in such a situation?

If analyzing and debating such ethical quandaries in science seems interesting to you, you may want to consider stopping by room 17 in Main at lunchtime on Monday to attend the next meeting of the new Ethics in Technology Forum at the upper school.

The Ethics in Technology Forum, created by sophomores Jason Lin and Sidra Xu, is a subset of the Philosophy Club. It aims to specifically address ethical debates on STEM-based topics, primarily on rapidly growing technology and their possible restrictions, that are not typically given as much attention as they deserve.

“There are many ethical issues that I think are undervalued, so I hope people can gain an interest in this sort of stuff and also be aware of it,” Jason said. “Right now, many people think, ‘Oh, I’m going to code the next big AI thing that will solve all the issues of the world,’ but they don’t consider that that AI might turn against them and maybe destroy the world.”

He added that the forum is structured to be fairly Socratic, intended to create a positive environment for students to engage in open discussion regarding their own perspectives and opinions about topical scientific issues that interest them, such as autonomous cars and gene editing.

“You can debate morals, ethics, values about people all day long, but machines, technology – that’s a really big, new area,” Ruth Krylov (9), who attended the first meeting, said about the forum’s first discussion topic: the development of AIs and the potential consequences.

The study of technoethics, which addresses technology-related social issues as well as concerns over possibly harmful scientific advancements, has been of rising interest in the last few decades, especially due to the abundance of innovations and new developments produced in the twenty-first century alone, which may have the potential to harm humans, such as by violating privacy or causing health problems.

With topics ranging from digital copyright issues to cloning, these ethical debates address the legal, social and moral implications for conducting research or implementing new technology.

But while technoethics has only recently gained popularity and is a fairly new branch of ethics, the principal values and morals that frame debates have remained consistent since the classical period of the ancient Greeks.

Dr. Ruth Meyer, who teaches the Western Thought and Philosophy class, described the connection between modern moral dilemmas and the teachings of ancient ethicists and scholars, referencing Greek philosopher Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” to prove her point.

“There are these prisoners in the cave, and all they can see are shadows,” Meyer said. “And one day, one of them sets himself free and goes outside and sees the real world. He comes back to try to tell the prisoners, and they kill him. They can’t take that there’s something else out there that’s real; they’d rather believe in their comfort zone and what they’ve been used to all their lives, rather than question their beliefs.”

Meyer notes that technology has become the “modern-day cave,” and that while it may seem difficult to be critical of new innovations, it is important for the current generation to be analyzing them and investigating their morals rather than simply accepting them.

Therefore, by attending events like the Ethics in Technology Forum, Harker students will have the same opportunity that Greek scholars had thousands of years ago: to debate and examine topical issues in an educated and informed environment.

“This [forum] is not as much like typical clubs in that we have a set goal,” treasurer Hari Bhimaraju (10) said. “Ethics in Technology hopes to provide a place of discussion for people, and the goal is more that we have a space where people can share ideas, and we can educate ourselves about this really important topic with our own knowledge and doing research together.”

Correction: October 11, 2018

A previous version of this piece omitted the significant piece of information that Jackson Memorial Hospital doctors had actually initially agreed to not honor the mentioned tattoo, as reported by The Washington Post. This fact has now been added.