Is it okay to alter your baby’s genes before he is born? Let’s say he’s going to be tall, is it okay to make him even taller? How about if he needs just a few more inches to make it in the N.B.A.? Is it ethical?
These are some of the questions raised by the Technology and Culture Forum, a lecture series at MIT that examines the moral and ethical implications of science and technology.
For the past 35 years, the forum has been an ongoing, Institute-wide arena for ethical issues to be discussed. Six to eight lectures are held each year and are open not only to the MIT community but to the wider community as well. About 150 people attend each session, although the talks have drawn up to 700 listeners.
Jane Gould, MIT’s Episcopal Chaplain, is coordinator of the program. “At least we can plant in our students and in this community seeds of ethical reflection by making clear we need to think about the implications of the research that we do.”
Recent programs include “The Technology of Land Mine Removal”; Corporations and Democracy, a discussion with MIT Institute Professor Noam Chomsky; and “Privacy on Line.” For example, what about computer hackers who operate on the code that it’s all right to snoop around someone else’s system as long as they don’t touch anything. Is it legal? Is it ethical?
One of the questions the forum encourages the community to reflect on is: When do we say we can do this technologically, but we won’t because we shouldn’t?
“Everyone pretty much agreed if we could get rid of manic depression by manipulating a gene we would,” Gould says. “But what about a man who is going to be only 5’1″? Would we want to manipulate that? Probably. But what about if he’s going to be 5’6″? Is that really a problem?”
Fiddling with music
Last year Pulitzer-prize winning composer and conductor Gunther Schuller was on the panel to discuss “Technology, Innovation and the Musical Imagination.”
The question raised was: Is it okay to electronically alter a violin recital if there were a few flat notes? Schuller said no. It can be much more evocative, he said, to have the passion of the performer behind the music.
“It was fascinating to listen to the crowd,” Gould says. “It was split. Some said if we could make it perfect, why not? Others said human beings can’t make it perfect, but the computer can. Barry Vercoe of MIT’s electronic music studio, said he wants technology to be a partner in the creation of music, that technology should be seen as just another instrument, not as the ultimate control.”
Lisa Tucker-Kellogg, a Ph.D candidate in computer science, is on the steering committee that plans the lectures. “Every time I attend a Technology and Culture event,” she says, “I come out all fired up with five different conversations going on in my head… It’s because the issues were visible from my daily life, but I’d never looked straight at them, much less considered them from lots of perspectives.”
Gould says that conversations about ethics began among faculty in the late 1950s. Soon, faculty realized that students would be the ones making these decisions in the next generation. It was then that the forum grew to include faculty and students and later grew to include the public as well.
Now, Gould says, “it is obvious that we need to make the lectures available and make a space for dialogue possible on the World Wide Web.” The current plan is to involve more students and make the forum known beyond MIT. (The Forum’s website is http://web.mit.edu/tac/www/)
A 16-member steering committee of faculty and students plan the lectures. Recent speakers have included Willy Brandt, Nobel Prize winner and former Chancellor of West Germany; MIT’s Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web; and Boston University’s Elie Wiesel, who won the Nobel Prize. Other topics include cloning, global warming, food scarcity, and sustainable development. Sometimes the group intentionally invites people on the panel who disagree to get the conversation rolling.
Gould says that occasionally she thinks a lecture is just a lecture. “Then,” she says, “we get calls and email from people who say, ‘You know, your lectures were so important to me when I was at MIT because nobody else seemed to be asking questions.'”