Ethics of Socially Disruptive Technologies

The new generation of Socially Disruptive Technologies has a number of characteristics. First, it promises almost complete control over atoms, bits, genes, and neurons, allowing for everything to be reconstituted or redesigned, including human beings. Second, it is characterized by a convergence of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres, resulting in new technologies at the intersection of information technology, biotechnology/biomedicine, nanotechnology, and neuroscience/cognitive science, such as synthetic biology and brain-computer interfaces. Finally, these technologies emerge in the context of a number of grand societal challenges, such as combating climate change and meeting the UN Sustainable Developments Goals (SDGs), which will actually require a range of technological and societal trans­formations.

The stakes are high. These new SDTs could bring great benefits to our society: opening up new medical perspectives, enabling new forms of political participation, or contributing to the solution of our sustainability problems. But they could also bring great harm if not properly developed and implemented (Jasanoff, 2016). They could curtail our autonomy and privacy, damage our ecology, and exacerbate divisions and inequalities in society. That is why normative frameworks are so important: which values and normative principles should guide their development and introduction, and which benefits do we want for individuals and society?

There are three sub-themes of the conference. Each of these sub-themes focuses on a number of key concepts that are being challenged by these socially disruptive technologies.

  • The Human Condition: concepts that are basic to our moral self-understanding, such as (moral) agency, autonomy, human interdependence, and responsibility;
  • The Future of a Free and Fair Society: concepts that form the basis of our political, social and legal institutions, such as democracy, public and private, justice, and equality;
  • Nature, Life and Human Intervention: concepts and distinctions that we use to order our world: such as distinctions between natural and artificial, humans and machines, and agents and physical systems.

The conference will have a track devoted to each of these subthemes and a fourth track called “Ethics by Design” exploring how ethical frameworks addressing these issues can used to tackle ethical concerns in design and development processes of SDTs.

Ethics by Design

Design for Values approaches have flourished in recent years, following the pioneering work of Batya Friedman and her associates who have advocated, since the 1990s, the approach of value-sensitive design. Recently, the approach has captured the attention of industry, policy makers and research funders, in particular the European Commission (EC) .The term used by the EC is “Ethics by Design”, defined as the implementation, starting from the beginning of the design process, of ethical and legal principles and is now implemented in the general Ethics Review protocol used by the EC in Horizon 2020 funding scheme, and is set to become a required element for new project proposals in the Artificial Intelligence funding scheme.

The Ethics by Design track has three objectives:

  • Exploring current approaches to Design for Values / Ethics by Design
  • Making steps towards a concrete, usable Ethics by Design methodology that can be used by technology developers and designers with little or no prior training in Ethics by Design
  • Making steps towards a concrete methodology for the development of AI systems in particular

The Ethics by Design track is co-sponsored by the Horizon 2020 projects SIENNA ( and SHERPA (, which study the ethical and human rights aspects of AI, big data, robotics, human enhancement and human genomics. These projects also aim to develop ethics by design principles and methodologies for the new Horizon Europe programme.



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