Probing the Ethics of Innovation

Since the 20th century, the United States has been a “Miracle Machine” of innovation, pioneering groundbreaking inventions ranging from the Internet to genetic editing tools to artificial intelligence systems. These innovations have been life-changing, but their widespread deployment has also brought unintended ethical, and social consequences that, in some cases, have put our health, happiness, and democracy in danger.

Social media, for example, has provided unprecedented ways of amplifying marginalized voices and making new contacts while at the same time provided a platform for hate speech and the spread of disinformation. Gene therapy and editing tools may very well bring an end to diseases that have eluded researchers for centuries while also ushering in a new era of eugenic and genetic discrimination applications. Will AI eradicate decision bias, or simply reinforce it on significantly larger scales? Will autonomous vehicles reduce or eliminate vehicular fatalities, or pave the way for a far scarier breed of self-governing weapons?

Whether our innovations are used to better society, or bring it down entirely, hinges on the scientific community’s ability to build ethical frameworks for their creations and to incorporate morality into design from the ground up. That’s why the MIT Communications Forum, in partnership with Radius at MIT, is bringing together some of MIT’s leading researchers to help answer these massive questions.

On Thursday, November 8th, the MIT Communications Forum and Radius will host The Consequences of America’s Miracle Machine, a free moderated discussion with Dr. Eric Lander, president and founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and a principal leader of the Human Genome Project, and Dr. Maria Zuber, MIT Vice President for Research and the E. A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics. An essential event for anyone working in the intersection of science, technology, and ethics, the panel will tackle the moral issues entangled in innovation and the real, and sometimes devastating, effects of invention without culpability. Seth Mnookin, director of the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing, will moderate.

Join us in Room 3–270 from 6 to 8pm to discuss how much responsibility researchers have over their inventions, and practical ways that scientists (and budding scientists) can incorporate ethics into their work. 

Christina Couch is a journalist and a staff member of MIT's Comparative Media Studies program.