Deep Coordination among Development, Ethics, and Governance of Science and Technology

The official release of the Opinions on Strengthening the Ethics and Governance of Science and Technology is of great strategic significance to the steady development of China’s science and technology. Science and technology ethics seems to come from the intersection of science and technology and ethics, but it should become the basis of modern science and technology that is as important as the principles of science and technology, and it is a compulsory course and code of conduct for every organization and individual engaged in scientific and technological work, and should be embedded in the whole life cycle of scientific and technology development and application.

The Opinions put forward systematic designs and opinions for the construction on the framework of ethics in science and technology with Chinese characteristics from the perspectives of overall vision, ethical principles, ethics and governance institutions and architecture construction, education and publicity, regulation and supervision.

The Opinions puts “promoting the construction of a community with a shared future for humankind” as the overall vision of development, ethics and governance of science and technology. The guiding philosophy is to establish an ethics framework for Science and Technology based on the stage of the Chinese nation and how it can contribute to the international consensus. The characteristics of social culture are closely related to the construction and implementation of the ethics framework of science and technology. Due to different cultural backgrounds and stages of scientific and technological development, the way in which science and technology intervene and serve society and even the entire ecology is different, and global collaboration on ethics and governance of Science and Technology should be carried out in an harmonious and inclusive manner.

The ethics of science and technology needs to be clear about what scientific and technological activities should do and should not do. Negative science and technology activities always warn technology managers, science and technology professionals and the public to reflect on “what we should not do”, and the shaping of ethical principles is to lead the development vision and direction of science and technology through “what should be done”. For example, the “Opinions” proposed to enhance the well-being of humankind and promote the peaceful and sustainable development of human beings, society and ecology, these have pointed out the overall direction for the development of China’s science and technology, and also reflected China’s responsibility as a rising scientific and technological power to contribute to the global advancement of science and technology.

The Opinions place special emphasis on “respect for the right to life”, including but not limited to protect the safety of human life, physical health, and avoid harm or potential threats to mental health. More importantly, the principle of “respect for the right to life” should be used as a guide to empower and promote the prosperity of biodiversity and ecological development through scientific and technological development. Therefore, in terms of reasonable risk control, the Opinions also specifically point out that both social and ecological security are taken into account.

The public needs to have sufficient knowledge of the potential risks and scope of applications of science and technology activities. They should be fully informed and have the right to choose. Hence, the Opinions emphasize that the right to know and to choose in science and technology activities must not be infringed. How to practically ensure this principle is an important task for the implementation of the Opinions in the future. Taking Artificial Intelligence as an example, especially related applications with personal data, there is still a lot of room for improvements in the sense of the user’s right to know and to choose, and it is a world challenges.

The Opinions particularly emphasize that “The education on the ethics of science and technology is a compulsory content of undergraduate and graduate program” is an important commitment. This will help promote the realization of ethics of science and technology as the basic literacy of the next generation engaged in scientific and technological work, and will provide fundamental supports to ensure the sustainable and healthy development of a new generation of science and technology.

The maturity of ethics in science and technology varies greatly among disciplines. For example, at present, there is no clear review system at different levels for ethics in Artificial Intelligence (AI) related research and development activities, and the views in the Opinions have highlighted that such a status has not kept pace with the needs of the coordinated development of science, technology and society, and it is not appropriate. AI-related scientific and technological research and development institutions, departments and management institutions at all levels should consider establishing (review) committees on the ethics of AI as soon as possible in accordance with the Opinions to review and supervise high-risk application areas. The ethics of Life sciences can provide meaningful references for ethics in Artificial Intelligence, as well as other scientific and technological fields. While on the other hand, it is also necessary to fully recognize that there will be great differences in ethical issues and governance approaches among different fields,  For example, whether AI R&D activities in low-risk areas need to be fully included in the review at this stage is debatable, and a filing system can be explored for necessary management. It is imperative to develop an ethical and governance framework applicable to various key scientific and technological fields and truly play a role in the entire process of scientific and technological development and applications.

For international cooperation on science and technology, every country or region may have their own ethical principles and norms, hence, the “Opinions” stated that “International cooperative research activities shall comply with the requirements of management for ethics in science and technology in the countries where the cooperating parties are located, and shall pass the review on ethics in Science and technology of the countries in which the cooperating parties are located”. This not only provides a guidance for the development of international scientific and technological cooperation in the new era, but also puts forward clear requirements for Chinese scientific and technological professionals to initiate and participate in international scientific and technological cooperation with legal compliance at the global level.

The official release of the Opinions, together with the construction and implementation of ethical and governance norms in various fields of science and technology in recent years show that China has begun to systematize the construction and implementation of ethics in science and technology. This will definitely better promote the steady development of science and technology in China. The relevant Chinese wisdom and Chinese solutions will certainly contribute to the well-being of all humankind. The implementation of the Opinions is crucial to what kind of Chinese Science and Technology we will shape, and how we should contribute to the well-being of all humankind, the prosperity of the ecology and the realization of a human community with a shared future.

This article was written by Yi Zeng (Professor and Director, International Research Center for AI Ethics and Governance, Institute of Automation, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Board member, National Governance Committee for New Generation AI, China), and it was originally published in Chinese at the China Science Daily, March 22, 2022.