Head to head: the science versus ethics debate

By Wang Yuanfeng Source:Global Times Published: 2017/11/30 22:18:18

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT



Recently, scientists claimed that the world's first human head transplant has been successfully carried out on a corpse. It sounds like a good news story, but for many this has sparked agitation and fear toward the boundless developments of science and technology in today's world.

What is happening in the realm of science and technology? A few days ago, it was artificial intelligence and robotics that stirred up people's fear and concern, and now the latest story is about a head transplant. What we can be sure about is this: although advancements in science and technology have provided us with new levels of comfort and convenience, it is also bringing us more anxiety and worries. Why is this?

Today, 200 years after the Industrial Revolution, science and technology has entered a period of rapid development. According to research made by James Martin, a British scholar, the time it took to double human knowledge capacity in the 19th century was 50 years; in the first half of the 20th century this took only 10 years; in the 1970s it was five; the 1980s it was three; and after the 1990s, it became only one year. By 2020, it is expected that total human knowledge capacity will be three to four times that of the present.

In short, human knowledge is increasing at an exponential rate, and with the ever increasing capabilities of humans, in the future we will be able to do things that seem unimaginable to us today.

Those involved in the head transplant procedure say their work will bring hope for those who have a healthy head but a paralyzed body. Opponents say that the transplant has challenged the bottom line of human ethics. A "human" made up of two different people will bring fundamental changes to human nature. The fact that one can continually change their body dances on the boundary between life and death. Those in favor, however, believe that human ethics are constantly changing along with technological advances. For example, the once unaccepted kidney transplant is now widely recognized as a key medical solution.

Many people believe that the development of science and technology over the past few hundred years has benefited human beings greatly. However, the large-scale application of science and technology, especially the ethical challenges brought upon by new technical and industrial revolutions, makes the current situation very different from before. The Global Risks Report 2017 issued by the World Economic Forum (WEF) concluded that the fourth industrial revolution taking place at present has generated unprecedented global risks. But we should not be alarmed. Yes, we should be wary as we go forward, yet we should not repress scientific and technological innovations. So, how do we manage this?

First of all, we should set up a national scientific and technological development department focusing on safety and ethics. The committee should be composed of a wide range of people including senior government officials, scientists, sociologists, philosophers and entrepreneurs. The committee should conduct in-depth research on safety and ethical issues related to scientific and technological developments that will be made into reports, corresponding strategies and action plans. These reports and strategies should be available publicly, and public opinion should also be welcomed. Finally, the country can implement these strategies into policies.

Second, ethical or safety problems brought by the development of science and technology cannot be resolved through the efforts of a single country. Thus an organization similar to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change should be set up in the UN to carry out in-depth research. This new organization should follow the steps of the WEF in holding a global brainstorming seminar every year, so as to gather knowledge from across the globe in order to create best practices and solutions that are agreed upon.

The establishment of the abovementioned committees marks only the beginning of addressing the issue. Institutions, along with human culture and society, must also undergo fundamental change. Only through institutional and cultural reforms can we truly deal with the situation long-term.

The author is a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn



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