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Thiking Critically and Collectively About Scientific Innovation

How does society respond to scientific innovation and how can scientists narrow the gap between their work and the public domain? These questions stand at the core of the Dutch Research Agenda (NWA), an initiative of the Dutch Organization for Scientific Research. Their animation film ROBIN: an interactive life story, which asks the viewer to decide about the ways in which scientific developments impact the life of the main character, premiered on 4 October at different venues throughout the Netherlands. Peter-Paul Verbeek, distinguished professor of philosophy of technology at the University of Twente, co-wrote the film’s script and was invited to introduce its screening at Radboud University. After the film, he spoke about the public side of scientific innovation with Lotte Krabbenborg, assistant professor at Radboud University’s Institute of Science and Society.

From Ivory Tower to Open Science

Verbeek introduced the film with a short talk on the history of the relationship between science and society. Whereas in the past, scientists used to work in ivory towers, perfectly isolated from the public which they would impose their innovations on, we now see an increasing engagement with the public sphere. However, Verbeek argued, there is still a long way to go before we will have reached the ideal of ‘open science’. While scientists are indeed connecting with the public by showcasing what nifty innovations they are working on, there is very little mutual conversation between the developers of new technologies and the citizens that will eventually use them. This means that the public’s concerns and fears about the impacts of these technologies are insufficiently addressed. As the possibilities for technological enhancement of our lives keep growing, so does the need to develop platforms for ethical debate between scientists and citizens. ROBIN: an interactive life story hopes to be such a platform, by raising questions about the kind of world we want to live in and about the kind of dilemmas that will we have to face.

Lab-Grown Meat

The members of the audience were asked to take out their smartphones and log on to a website which would allow them to vote collectively about Robin’s life decisions as the film progressed. Robin was born around the year 2020 and, through the audience’s collective decisions, grew up to be a man who chooses to eat lab-grown meat, but opts out of using self-monitoring technologies to improve his career path; still, he becomes a successful microbiologist, who hits upon the discovery of a famine-combatting fertilizer. It turns out, however, that this fertilizer can be turned into a highly toxic chemical weapon and Robin’s new technology inadvertently results in a new Cold War.

What kind of World Are We Choosing?

Asked whether they would want to live in the world that Robin ended up in, the audience responded overwhelmingly negatively. However, some people ventured that the featured end-scenario was not so very different from the world in which we currently live. The audience agreed that the dilemmas posed felt relevant to the present day, making one think about the consequences of the technologies we are already involved with. One interesting issue that came up, was that the film presented Robin’s choices in a much more explicit way than we are used to on a day-to-day basis: we mindlessly accept the Terms and Conditions of yet another app and this is not only because we cannot be bothered to read them, but also because it often feels like we have no real choice but to accept. Societal pressure makes it almost impossible to function in the modern world without saying yes to certain technological advancements. There was a slight irony in the fact that the audience was, without question, expected to have their smartphones ready, in order to be able to participate in the interactive film.

The Need for Effective Communication

After the film, there was a moderated discussion between Verbeek and Krabbenborg. Both speakers were passionate about the need to enhance communication between scientific innovators and citizens, and spoke about their own efforts to do so. Krabbenborg, who is currently doing research into self-monitoring technologies, addressed the difficulty of incorporating user feedback into the developing process. Technical scientists are often only concerned with concrete technical problems and have insufficient attention for the needs of the target audience. Verbeek concurred and emphasised the need for platforms on which effective communication can happen.

Human Life Without Technology?

Asked whether human beings shouldn’t be more hesitant to embrace technology in the first place, Verbeek responded that it is impossible to view human nature as separate from technological innovation. Humans are inherently technological beings and the idea that we should go back to simpler, supposedly non-technological, times is “pure nostalgia”. The question should not be whether we need technology or not; we should rather conduct meaningful investigations into the relationship between humans and technology, a relationship which is necessary and primal.

ROBIN: An interactive life story will shortly be available for free on www.nwo.nl/nwa/robin.

This report was written by Kyrke Otto, as part of the Research Master Philosophy of the Radboud University.