Edited by Gary E. Marchant, Kenneth W. Abbott and Braden Allenby
Chapter 1: Introduction: the challenges of oversight for emerging technologies
We are in the midst of one of the greatest periods of scientific and technological innovation in human history. Scientific discoveries and technological developments are fueling explosive advances in biotechnology, personalized medicine and synthetic biology; applied neuroscience; nanotechnology; information technology and artificial intelligence; robotics; geoengineering and other fields. Each of these emerging technologies promises almost unfathomable social and personal benefits. As a result, governments are actively promoting them, while researchers and the private sector are devoting enormous resources to their development. The result has been rapid and widespread commercialization, production and application. Yet each of these technologies also carries the possibility of significant risks to health, safety and the environment. And each entails other potential impacts that raise broader social, economic and ethical concerns. To be sure, many of the issues raised by the current emerging technologies are generic: they attend every significant new technology. As Christopher Bosso argues, society must balance the potential benefits of every technological innovation against its potential risks and potential economic, social and personal impacts. Benefits, moreover, typically appear near-term and tangible – in the light of self-interest as well as natural optimism – while risks appear distant and intangible. Nonetheless, the current suite of emerging technologies poses challenges for regulatory oversight that are quantitatively, if not qualitatively, greater than those posed by most earlier innovations. These challenges stem from the breadth and power of individual platforms such as biotechnology, nanotechnology and synthetic biology.