APS News | Careers and Education

To Manage Future Risks of Emerging Technologies, Train Physicists in Ethical Decision-Making Now

Panelists and audience members at the APS Annual Leadership Meeting made the case for adding lessons on ethics in technology to physics programs.

Published Mar 16, 2023
Attendees in the audience at the APS Annual Leadership Meeting in Washington, D.C., in late January.
Attendees in the audience at the APS Annual Leadership Meeting in Washington, D.C., in late January.
Credit: APS

Can a technology be inherently good or bad, or are the ethics of a technology determined by who uses it, and for what? Perhaps more importantly, who determines the answers to these questions, and what role should a technology’s inventors play in this process?

In late January, during the Ethics and Emerging Technologies panel at the APS Annual Leadership Meeting in Washington, D.C., panelists and audience members explored these questions.

Emerging technologies — for example, artificial intelligence or quantum computing today — drive economies. That’s one reason why nations around the world, including the U.S., invest in basic and applied research. But new technologies also bring risk, and not all that risk can be foreseen, even by the best-trained and most experienced scientists.

“Even if [scientists] know a lot about a field on the technical side, they’re not always the best at trying to predict what the future might entail,” said panelist William Colglazier, of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Social media is a great example. “We totally underestimated what the impact of [its] disruptive effect could be,” said Colglazier. “There really are such things as unexpected, unanticipated consequences. … It has to do with our human limitations.”

To complicate things, nations must balance open science and international collaboration with national security, Colglazier added.

“In many ways, the incentive [in scientific research] is to move fast and break things, and sometimes you have to understand what you’re breaking, what the implications of that destruction [are],” said Vaughan Turekian of the National Academies, who moderated the panel — a difficult but important task.

Of course, nobody can see the future, which means even the most careful attempts to predict the social, financial, or political risks associated with an emerging technology may prove inadequate or misguided. Even so, a new technology’s inventors — the people who best understand the technical elements of that new technology — are at least obligated to try to envision these risks, some panelists suggested.

The panel gave nuclear fission as a historical example. Physicists working on the Manhattan Project knew the end goal was the deadliest weapon ever made. Some — like Edward Condon, Leo Szilard, and Harold Urey — joined conversations around the future regulation of the then-new technology. Their push for civilian input on regulation led to the formation of the think tank now known as the Federation of American Scientists. Those physicists didn’t have all the answers, but they made sure science had a voice in the conversation.

The lesson might apply today. For example, perhaps programmers, many of whom are physicists, should play a similar role in debating the ultimate uses of artificial intelligence.

But ethics training is mostly absent from the education that most physicists receive in the U.S., noted one audience member.

“As physicists, I think we’re trained to think that we know how to do everything,” said APS President Robert Rosner, one of the panelists. “But sometimes we don’t.”

Of course, ethical dilemmas around emerging technologies aren’t unique to physics, and other fields have tried to respond. For example, every undergraduate engineering program in the United States teaches ethical decision-making. This is a requirement of ABET, the nonprofit that accredits all undergraduate U.S. engineering programs. Without that accreditation, an engineering bachelor’s degree in the U.S. carries almost no professional weight. Ethics training has also been increasingly incorporated into the biological sciences.

So why not physics? “Our physics graduates are going to be faced with many questions that are ethical,” suggested an audience member.

While evaluating the ethicality of an emerging technology is a challenge that exists in “the gray,” Rosner’s stance on ethics training was more certain. “I would be a supporter of that,” he replied to that audience member.

Data shows that roughly 1 in 5 undergraduate physics majors pursuing an advanced degree will do so in engineering, and more than 3 in 5 stay in physics or astronomy. Others leap directly into the workforce, often into engineering or research roles. And where do the rest go? Medicine, law, business, finance — all careers where training in ethical decision-making can help young professionals in a global economy and tech landscape, where the potential impact of an emerging technology is not limited by geopolitical borders.

As an example, Rosner pointed to automated manufacturing, once an emerging technology. “It’s one of the reasons we now have huge income gaps between folks that have gone to college and folks that have not gone to college. It’s basically disenfranchised a whole generation of people,” he said. “But other countries reacted differently … The vocational system responded to the changes in the talents that were needed.”

“And that did not happen in the United States,” he said.

So perhaps physics ought to look to programs in other STEM fields and strive for authentic engagement with ethics in undergraduate and graduate physics programs.

Panelist Julia Phillips, retired from Sandia National Laboratories, underscored this point when she asked, in the context of a discussion on artificial intelligence, “What does it mean to be human?” She added, “as physicists, we are ill-equipped to answer that question without engaging with a lot of areas of expertise and really deep contemplation” — like ethicists, historians, and other social scientists.

“If we don’t grapple with those questions,” she added, emerging technologies have the potential to easily lead us into “some really dark places.”

Liz Boatman

Liz Boatman is a science writer based in Minnesota.

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