Wendell Wallach

What are you most trying to accomplish in your work? 

My work in technology and ethics is directed at finding approaches to comprehensively monitor and manage the societal impact of emerging technologies. I am best known for work in robotics and neuroscience, and for mapping the new field of inquiry known as machine ethics. However, my concerns encompass the policy challenges arising from a broad array of emerging fields of research (including synthetic biology, nanotechnology, and geoengineering) and their collective impact. The ethical and governance structures in place for managing technological development are largely piecemeal, and oversight lags seriously behind the pace of scientific discovery and technological innovation. I am among those who believe we are at an inflection point in human history precipitated by technological possibilities. My policy proposals are about recognizing that decisions we, humanity as a whole, make today regarding, for example, lethal autonomous weapons, will have an impact on the future course of our ability to effectively manage the unfolding course of technological development. We flirt with allowing technology to slip beyond our control. My hope is that through a conscious engagement with today’s challenges, opportunities for shaping humanity’s future will be recognized and acted upon. Our society has failed to have an effective conversation about the societal impact of the collection of technological possibilities that are likely to become available over the coming decades. In working towards means to foster that conversation, I believe that my teaching and writing play only a small role. More important are my efforts to build a community of scholars, engineers, business leaders, policy planners, and informed citizens capable of working through the societal challenges arising from emerging technological possibilities. I hope to soon initiate a pilot project for the oversight of developments in robotics and synthetic biology. These governance coordinating committees, proposed by Gary Marchant (ASU) and myself, would monitor the field, attempt to coordinate the activities of the various stakeholders (engineers, entrepreneurs, policy planners, scientists, regulatory bodies, NGOs, the media, and the public) and look for gaps that open up the possibility of widespread harms. The recommendations made by such a committee would favor soft governance over hard regulatory solutions. The idea is to create oversight that is nimble, flexible, and adaptive.

What do you think sets your work apart from the work of others in your field?

Most policy planners, innovators, scholars, and proponents approach the societal challenges of accelerating technological development through a single defining idea, one discipline, or an overriding ideology. Mental silos subvert our ability to forge effective solutions. In my work, the disintegration of mental silos entails the creation of trans-disciplinary forums and new fields of inquiry. I have put forward frameworks for thinking broadly about issues. For example, Moral Machines: Teaching Robots Right From Wrong, which I co-authored (with Colin Allen), is not merely about the prospects for implementing moral decision making capabilities in computers and robots. It also offers a uniquely comprehensive approach to understanding human decision making and ethics. My next book, A Dangerous Master: How to keep technology from slipping beyond our control, will do the same for the way we design innovative tools and processes, and means to provide effective oversight.

What or who inspired you to get into your field? Do you have any individuals or groups of people that you credit with helping you achieve the goals you set out to accomplish?

I’ve met many inspiring people in my lifetime. However, there is no person or group that inspired me to enter this field. In the early years of my work I was most appreciative of the support from the Yale University Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics.

What role has serendipity played in the turning points in your career? 

Serendipity has played a significant role in my life, but largely in the form of small events – an invitation to a meeting or an offer of help. In retrospect those incidents can be viewed as initiating major reorientations in the trajectory of my work. At the time, however, I was just showing up and the events were perceived as minor adjustments, if that.

What have been the greatest challenges that you have encountered in your career?

My career path has been idiosyncratic, and I came to the fields of research with which I am now identified very late in life (mid-fifties). This is my third career. I have had a lot of catch-up to do, particularly in developing sufficient expertise in the very many areas of understanding necessary to forge an interdisciplinary appreciation of the ethical and societal challenges posed by emerging technologies. There is a lot of talk about the need for true interdisciplinary scholarship. But few people do it because it is hard to develop the necessary expertise, and because few institutions have rewarded individuals for trans-disciplinary scholarship. As someone who did not travel one of the traditional routes to success within academic and policy circles, there have also been serious difficulties to surmount in winning the respect of colleagues whose career paths were more traditional. It can be difficult to maintain faith in one’s own inner direction when there is precious little outer support. Fortunately, that is changing.

Do you believe leaders and innovators have certain qualities that they all share? If so, what?

Creative insights or inspiration are relatively commonplace. Those who successfully execute any project usually have the perseverance to work through the problems and hurtles that arise along the way. The better leaders and innovators learn to recognize their own process for working through challenges, so that they are able to do so time and time again.

How would you most like to change the world through your work?

"Technology affords solutions, benefits, and enriching tools. But innovation also comes with serious risks. I hope that my work will help create a community of informed leaders and citizens willing to direct adequate time, attention, and resources to mitigating risks and addressing the societal impact of innovative technologies. To maximize benefits and minimize harms it will be necessary to maintain the accelerating adoption of innovative technologies within a humanly manageable pace. A humanly manageable pace refers to a pace that allows for informed decision making by individuals, institutions, governments, and humanity as a whole. With proper attention, opportunities for creative action emerge and the time and space to ground the future in broadly shared principles expands. I also hope to facilitate a new approach to ethics. Values and ethics are languages that underscore considerations that we would like to have factored into our judgments and actions. They pervade everything, not just those issues upon which there is strong disagreement over inflexible principles. People differ on how various values should be prioritized, but there is more agreement on foundational principles than is often acknowledged."

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