In December 2019, a Chinese researcher named He Jiankui was sentenced to three years in prison and fined 3 million yuan (US$430,000) by a Shenzhen court for illegally carrying out human embryo gene-editing experiments in which three genetically edited babies were born.
His case demonstrates that scientific development is not only a tech issue but also a serious ethical issue. The rapidly developing new technologies including 5G, 6G, blockchain, big data, gene editing, cloud computing, artificial intelligence and bio-identification have surely unleashed huge innovation potential. But common people are curious about how new technologies such as these will influence their lives, both positively and negatively, and whether efforts will be made to strengthen scientific ethics.
Scientists have also voiced their concerns that new technologies, if unregulated, could become a Pandora’s box that brings more uncertainty, new problems and unexpected consequences. In an interview with the BBC, Stephen Hawking admitted his fears about the consequences of future creations, which could match or surpass the current abilities of humankind. “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” the physicist warned.
Take 5G and 6G technologies as examples. While 5G technology is now being profoundly applied in many sectors globally such as the Internet of Things, virtual reality, augmented reality and the industrial Internet, 6G technology is in its infancy. 6G will incorporate new technologies that were left out of 5G, such as terahertz signals, satellites and visible light communication. The speed of 6G will exceed 125 GB/s, allowing for ultra-high fidelity virtual reality, zero latency for machine-to-machine communication and global high-speed Internet coverage.
China and telecom companies in the U.S., Russia, Japan and Europe are now conducting research on 6G technologies. With the help of 6G, people will be able to transmit so much data so rapidly that they may fail to notice either small leaks or security risks. Moreover, some insiders are worried that 6G’s new infrastructure, the increased integration of space-air-ground-sea communication and the use of a new frequency range to transmit data might affect astronomical instruments or public health, or be insecure for researchers to use.
As for blockchain technology, it requires improvements to better protect communication privacy and security. The underlying technology of blockchain is distributed and decentralized storage, which solves some of the problems brought on by the data explosion era. However, while blockchain holds tremendous potential for creating new supply chains and digital identity systems, it is not a panacea for all issues. As the transaction data in blockchain is open and transparent, using blockchain requires sharing sensitive information. If you get access to someone’s personal account, you can easily find out his wealth and every cryptocurrency transaction he makes. There is no guarantee of privacy.
Bio-identification technologies such as face, voice and fingerprint recognition are also being increasingly used in different sectors. How to strike a balance between the convenience they bring to people and the protection of the collected personal information is another pressing issue.
Given these crises in scientific ethics, several countries such as the U.S. and Japan are stepping up efforts to stipulate legislation and set up ethical standards for scientific research. China should also accelerate legislation on emerging technological fields, set up standards for the application of technology and launch a publicity campaign to raise people’s awareness of scientific ethics.
Emerging technologies will gradually change our social and economic structures and reshape the value chain, our lifestyle and even the whole world. To better cater to new technological developments, governments at various levels and higher learning institutions should take pains to conduct long-term fundamental research and train professionals who can advance with the times and grasp the trends of new technologies.
Moreover, an appraising and tracing mechanism should be established to make it clear who are using the new technologies and how they are being used.
(The author is the editor-in-chief of Shenzhen Daily with a Ph.D. from the Journalism and Communication School of Wuhan University.)