Do Engineers make the world a better place?
- A symposium on engineers and social responsibility
Friday April 29th, 2016, the Engineering Graduate Student Advisory Committee (EGSAC) held a symposium about engineers and social responsibility. The EGSAC advises the College of Engineering on topics that are important to graduate education and that impact the graduate student experience on campus.
The symposium, entitled “Do Engineers make the World a Better Place?” was held at the NCSA auditorium. In the opening speech, a member of the EGSAC pointed that the title is in the form of a big question so that it can be used as a springboard for delving into what it means for engineers to make the world better. This symposium was intended to initiate “a candid discussion on the broader effects, unforeseen consequences and unintended misuses of new technologies to consider the possible responsibilities which these introduce for developers, engineers, and researchers.”
The panel members included Associate Professor Colleen Murphy from Law and Philosophy, the head of the Electrical and Computer Engineering department, Prof William Sanders, Prof. Rashid Bashir from Bioengineering, Amy LaViers, Assistant Professor in the department of Mechanical Science and Engineering.
Amy LaViers, the first one to take the floor, spoke about the robotic and animation project she is currently working on and the social responsibility aspects related to it. Her project focuses on the parameters of motion and movement that are important for the robot to move. Today there are many robots everywhere doing repetitive and mechanical motions and her research steps in to grasp the complex, dynamics situations when interacting with humans. For instance, how to make robots function in a respectful way in the private setting of a human home. She addresses questions like who in the room makes the decision how the robot is moving which is particularly pertinent, for instance, in cases where robots have to move around the house helping elderly people or in dispensing medication.
The next panelist, Prof Bashir who is passionate about applying engineering to biology, brought up the issue of how important ethical and societal implications are in engineering. He illustrated his point with the example of care diagnostics involving sensors using body fluids to detect disease and how that poses ethical issues if those sensors were to be translated into marketable products: how much information about the genomes in those body fluids would one want to know about?, how much should be made known to others? How it should be known? Would all be questions that would arise in the use of such an engineering product meant to save and better lives? Prof Bahir is interested in designing with biology, for building with cells. He wants to merge top-down engineering with biology that he believes is quite futuristic. When this kind of fabrication involves living cells, new questions arise: to what extent would we consider humanoids or miniature robots with cells or robots with cells and hydrogens living things or not? How do you define where the boundaries as to living and non-living?
Philosophers ask questions and staying true to her discipline, Dr. Colleen Murphy focused on what questions to ask and also how to provide answers to those questions. Do Engineers make the world a better place? According to Prof Murphy, if one wanted a straightforward answer, it would be, “yes, sometimes, under certain conditions.” Prof Murphy wanted to complicate the question because the answer to that question is complicated. Examples of complications she introduces are: “what does it means to make the world better or worse and with respect to what? Would that mean to make the world better by virtue of positioning individuals with respect to domination and subordination? Is the world a better place, at least in part, by virtue of improving the lives of individuals or communities? What does it mean for the individual to live better? This is a question that comes up in ethics in international development. There are different ways of conceiving what it means to be better in international development such as equating improvement or quality of life with the amount of resources one has or it can be based on the capabilities approach: communities live in so far that there exist genuine opportunities to satisfy basic needs. So should we look at the different indices of information such as GDP or availability of opportunities to satisfy or attain certain standard of living – measures of educational attainment, malnutrition or the happiness index? What information we look at matters as it is going to yield different answers. Defining what it means to be better whether it means expansion of resources, happiness or opportunities, is always contingent and variable. Engineers produce tools and artifacts and like the other panel members, she highlighted that all tools can be produced for good or bad, bettering or worsening the lives of individuals. Think of a knife. It depends on what the knife is being used for: it can be used as a tool if it is used as a cutting knife for making a meal or it could be a weapon if it is used for murdering a person. She drew a parallel with how law, just like technology, can be used as a double-edged sword. Laws can be used for the expansion of the rights of an individual or for segregation just like bridges can facilitate employment or military efficacy.
So how to increase the likelihood that tools made by engineers are used for ‘good’ rather than the ‘bad’? Prof Murphy suggested that when thinking about the design process, engineers should not pay attention only to the technical considerations. There is always value judgements that go into the making of a tool. One has to think about the end user, make implicit assumptions that will shape whether the tool will be useful or harmful to the end user. The engineer will have to balance the competing sources of constraints (be it technological, social or political) and this will yield to different designs. There are deep moral questions underlying what might seem utilitarian on the surface. The question of place being very important as the context influences how the tool is used and the outcomes of the use of what engineers produce. While it is true that engineers cannot be held totally socially responsible for the tools they create, they always certain room for maneuverability for them in the application of their technical knowledge and controlling the parameters that can perpetuate or decrease injustices or harm.
During the question and answer session, audience members asked questions about how to put the right safeguards in place so as to catch the ‘bad’ uses of technology early on. Concerns were brought up about how ethic could be brought up in a more prominent way in engineering and technology research proposals. To the question about difficult question of how to ensure that designs are used for and the extent of the responsibility of engineers in it, the panelists answered that engineers have to take into account the informational basis being used. Having engineers talk across disciplines is very important in order to make accurate predictions in the context where the engineering product is being used. The symposium concluded with a reception where participants had a chance to continue the discussion.