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7 Ethically Controversial Research Areas in Science and Technology

Scientific research contains a plethora of ethical and moral dilemmas – at what point have we gone too far?

Science and technology are the great drivers of innovation in the world around us. Technological and scientific breakthroughs help people every day, bringing clean water, access to information through the internet, cures for rare diseases.

Many aspects of scientific discovery face few ethical questions. But there are also a number of scientific endeavors that push the ethical lines of what science should revolve around. While all the areas of controversy cover  here have great benefits, they also come with potential ethical burdens, such as potential harm to animals, people, or the environment. 

It all should make us stop and think - at what point do the negatives of innovation overshadow the good that it may bring? And is there ever an innovation so beneficial to the world that it would be worth compromising on ethics in order to achieve scientific and technological progress? Ponder these questions as we look into 7 ethically controversial areas of science and technology...

1. AI 

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Artificial intelligence is at the forefront of technological development in many areas. Almost every company that has anything to do with technology is using it as a buzzword to sell their product: "New dog collar with built-in AI to detect when your dog is in distress! Install our simple computer plug-in and we'll optimize your workday."

AI certainly has many valuable applications and benefits, but there are also areas where it has some extensive drawbacks. Take two, key AI technologies that have questionable benefits, or rather extensive drawbacks: deep fake and Neuralink.

You've probably heard of deep fakes, the face-swapping technology that is used to bring dead movie stars back to life, but can also make world leaders appear to say things they never did – or for even less family-friendly things.

You might not know about Neuralink, though. It's one of Elon Musk's technological endeavors, and aims to improve brain-machine interfaces, record memories, and make other technological advancements to do with the brain.  

Focusing in on Neuralink first, questions surround the ethics of connecting human brains to machines, and utilizing AI to make human brains function better. Ethical questions primarily focus on the development of said technology and potential side-effects. The company's goal is to optimize human brain function, but the testing that will be needed to get there will be extensive. This will eventually involve testing on human brains, with unknown consequences. At what point is the potential promise of drastic technological advancement not worth the potential human loss in the development of the technology?

RELATED: AI CONTINUES TO ACT IN UNPREDICTABLE WAYS – SHOULD WE BE CONCERNED?

Moving on from Neuralink, we're met with a technology, deep fakes, that pose less potential benefit to humanity. There's arguably little reason that anyone needs to replace someone's face with another in a video – at least, little reason that isn't nefarious. 

Yet, the technology exists to do this, thanks to artificial intelligence and machine learning. It continues to be researched under the guise of benefits to improved video editing technology, but at the end of the day, there's no way to keep it from being used for negative purposes.

At the end of the day, artificial intelligence has the potential to completely change how we interact with the world, but are there too many negatives? Time will tell...

2. CRISPR

Through CRISPR, scientists are able to quickly and cheaply edit the human genome. That means researchers can alter DNA sequences and  how our genes function. That means the potential to correct genetic defects, preventing the spread of disease – orrr for making designer babies.

CRISPR is short for 'Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats', a gene-editing tool whose best-known form utilizes the Cas9 enzyme to cut strands of DNA. It's basically like molecular scrapbooking.

The development of the CRISPR technology emerged from discoveries of how bacteria defend themselves, by creating a 'library' of virus DNA that the bacteria can draw on to destroy the DNA of foreign invaders before they are able to take hold of the organism.

CRISPR has emerged very recently, with a 2017 paper demonstrating using the technique for gene editing.

Chinese scientists have started using CRISPR to engineer designer babies - human babies with genes edited to be resistant to particular viruses. All of this seems can potentially improve humanity's quality of life, but at what cost? The long-term side-effects are still completely unknown. And there is no way to tell where this could end. It is one thing to design a baby to be HIV-resistant, but another to design the appearance and intelligence of a baby.

In addition, designer babies also potentially call into question the very definition of human. 

3. Gene editing (GMO)

Moving on from human gene editing in CRISPR, we can examine the ethical issues with gene editing on other organisms, like plants. Gene editing includes any ntervention in an organism's genetics.

This intervention creates GMOs or genetically-modified organisms. This can result in benefits such as stronger, more drought-resistant crops, or crops that have higher yields per acre, among other things advantages.

Today, gene editing occurs across the world and it is conducted on both plants and animals, mostly in the pursuit of better food production. On animals, gene editing has been used to create pigs that are naturally very resistant to Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrom, or PRRS, improving animal welfare.

The gene-editing process for all organisms is overseen by various government agencies, depending on the country. However, the long-term effects of much  gene editing are still unknown, and the potential for edited genes to enter the 'wild' and alter the environment in unforeseen ways may be high. 

4. Animal testing

Animal testing is one of the most controversial areas of scientific research on this list. Many people couldn't care less, while others vehemently oppose it. For years, animal testing has been used to create newer and better pharmaceuticals, and test consumer products such as makeup, shampoos, etc. 

At the end of the day, however, animal testing places the prevention of human suffering over the prevention of animal suffering. In certain cases, the ethical argument for animal testing may be easier, i.e. wher it may lead to advances in preventing disease. In other cases, the argument is harder, as the development of a better lipstick is likely not worth the suffering of animals. 

On the one hand, you have human suffering and on the other, you have animal suffering. And we seem to have no problem with animal suffering as long as it is for a greater cause.

In introducing the subject, we've made it seem fairly cut and dry, but an increasing number of scientists are starting to question the relevance of continued animal testing at a time where AI and other tech is starting to be able to accurately model and predict biological interactions. A great deal of animals are harmed in the creation of many chemicals and consumer products, and we must each ask ourselves, is it worth it? 

5. Human trials

The progression from animal testing to human testing or human trials occurs with most new medications. Human subject research is often necessary to get drugs to the final phase of regulatory approval. It serves as the final check of how a given medicine or chemical will interact with the human system. Yet, time and time again it has hurt, maimed, or killed individuals. And we have to ask ourselves again, at what point is this not worth it?

History may not be kind to the reputation of human trials, though scientists are making a constant effort to create safety standards in the process.

In 1947, it was discovered that German physicians conducted deadly experiments on concentration camp prisoners during WWII. Some were prosecuted as war criminals in the Nuremberg Trials, after which the Allies then established the Nuremberg Code, being the first international document for voluntary human consent for research.

In today's human testing, all patients must consent to the study. However, as long as human trials are conducted, there are people who are coerced to participate. For this reason, the ethics of the entire  situation are still be hotly debated.

6. Weapons and military R&D

Military weapons development is another major crossroad of science and ethics. Take, for example, the development of the atomic bomb under the Manhattan Project during WWII. In many ways, the research conducted during these experiments furthered humanity's understanding of atoms, molecules, and quantum theory. In other ways, this research eventually led to the deaths of thousands of people.

Military power and weapons technology pose an ethical dilemma largely due to the nature of humankind. There is the potential that failure to invest in a particular deadly weapon, such as bioweapons, could allow these weapons to be developed and controlled only by people intent on evil.  Yet, once the weapons are developed by anyone, the genie is out of the bottle, and cannot be put back. This could potentially lead to their use by those wanting to commit harm anyway.

7. Space colonization 

Since it seems like the Earth has seen better days, maybe it's time to consider moving somewhere else, like Mars. Scientists suspect that there is water on Mars somewhere, and we know the planet also contains resources which may help us survive.

So, why not spend the money developing Mars as a colony?

The biggest ethical questions around Martian colonization are presented when you consider the potential of life on Mars or the potential of future life on Mars. We can't state with absolute certainty that life could thrive on the planet. Moving people there could be harmful. And the cost of developing programs to colonize Mars is high -  surely the money could be used to help solve  some of Earth's current envoronmental problems? 

RELATED: SPACEX IS PREPARING A MISSION TO COLONIZE MARS BY 2026

The answers to these questions may have to do with how humanity should approach its ethical responsibility toward the Earth itself. If you believe humanity's only ethical responsibility is to our planet, then colonization seems wasteful. If you believe that we need to explore all options, then space exploration makes sense, no matter how expensive. 

Closing out this discussion of ethical dilemmas in science and technology we're left again wondering – what is innovation and the betterment of humanity worth? The answer to that question will vary depending upon who you ask... but ask yourself, what is innovation worth?

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