Assessing the impact of new technologies at different scales

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Impact assessment


Trilateral Research |

Date: 28 November 2018

One of our core areas of expertise at Trilateral is understanding and anticipating the impacts of new technologies and their social, ethical, legal and political impacts in particular.

We’ve been exploring the impact of new technologies at different scales. Developing an understanding of the impacts of new technologies at the large scale:

  • the impacts of a particular domain of innovation – e.g., artificial intelligence, nanotechnology

and the impacts of new technologies at the small scale:

  • for example, the impacts of a new system for anticipating cybersecurity threats in healthcare settings

How can we best combine big-picture analysis, with concrete design interventions?

In more academic terms, this might be understood as the “level of analysis” – the size of a research subject. We’d position our work as most frequently ranging from the macro- (e.g., international, societal, national) to the meso (organisation, city). You might also be able to conduct impact assessments at the micro level (individual, household).

Picking the right scale is important because it determines the outcomes of the research, including the transferability of the work to other similar contexts.

Impact assessment at the macro level

Our work in the  SIENNA project and the SHERPA project is a good example of impact assessment at the macro level.

The aim of SIENNA is to develop ethical protocols and codes for human genomics, human enhancement, and for AI and robotics. As part of this, the project seeks to understand the wide potential impacts of these new technologies.

Through literature reviews, expert workshops and other methods, the project is collecting and categorizing the different types of impacts that these technologies might have, to inform the development of those protocols and codes.

SHERPA is investigating our understanding of the ways in which smart information systems (SIS; effectively the combination of artificial intelligence and big data analytics) impact ethics and human rights issues.

SHERPA is using large-scale interview and survey methods to identify the concerns of a wide range of stakeholders and will be developing new ways of representing and communicating those impacts. In these projects, Trilateral is engaged in this macro-level impact assessment; looking broadly and developing systematic knowledge across a domain.

Artificial intellingence

Impact assessment at the meso level

Our work in the iTRACK and DEVELOP projects is a good example of impact assessments at the meso level.

iTRACK is developing an information management system to support and increase the safety and security of humanitarian responders in crisis situations. DEVELOP is building a personalised learning environment to help people reflect upon their skills and competencies and plan their career development within large organisations.

In both projects, Trilateral is doing a more localised impact assessment, focused upon the ethical, legal and social impacts (ELSI) of those technologies, in the contexts of their deployment. We’re working to understand what impacts those systems might have, and how they can be better designed to prevent negative and unwanted impacts.

Conducting impact assessments at both levels of analysis is mutually reinforcing. The study of wide societal-level impacts of a new technology provides a broad range of real-world examples that can be drawn upon in particular contexts.

For example, in DEVELOP, we were able to look at how other examples of workplace data-gathering had impacted upon employees or had affected the relationship between employers and employees, to pre-empt and avoid potential problems in the design of the software. We could see issues arising in other applications of machine learning and AI planning that could, if not anticipated, occur with a tool like DEVELOP.

In the other direction, our more context-specific impact assessments add greater detail and reality to the big picture analysis. Because we are involved in the research and development of new technologies, we can bring that practical familiarity to our social-scale research.

iTrack Project

The European Commission has been a driving force behind the development of ethics assessment and impact assessment practices, by incorporating the need for responsible research and innovation in its framework programmes.

As part of the SATORI project, Trilateral has developed a European framework for common basic ethical principles and joint approaches and practices with the objective of harmonizing and improving ethics assessment practices of research and innovation.

The framework is a comprehensive approach for ethically assessing the actual and potential mid- and long-term impacts of research and innovation on society. It is applicable to all researchers and innovators, regardless of the context they are working in or their research and innovation area.

For more information please contact our team.

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