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Dr Dan Weijers is looking at how to deal with the public rejection of new potentially life-saving technologies.

He is one of the speakers at the new Waikato Dialogue later this month, a symposium focusing on the implications of emerging disruptive technologies for international security and New Zealand. Key national and international speakers will be looking for solutions to some of the biggest challenges the country faces in the area. Organizers aim to make it an annual event, which will be a crucial focus for security for the Australasian region.

Dr Weijers says new technologies can offer solutions to security concerns, such as preventing terrorist attacks. Many new technologies are criticised on moral grounds, leading some potentially life-saving technologies to be left on the shelf. He’s presenting a framework for policymakers to use when a potentially beneficial new technology is deemed morally repugnant by members of the public.

Dr Dan Weijers.

It’s not about immediately de-escalating the repugnance or revulsion, Dr Weijers says, it is about conducting a moral assessment to guide how policy makers should deal with it. “The public revulsion happens, and often there is an immediate political response - like “of course we won’t do that”, and things get canceled or stopped without giving the matter any deep thought.”

One example comes from the United States. The idea was to develop a Policy Analysis Market (PAM), a futures market intended to harness collective intelligence to predict future international events. New Zealand had a similar market in the now defunct iPredict. Such markets essentially use the wisdom of the crowd to predict the future. “Anyone can make a prediction, but people are more careful with their predictions when they have money on it.” In the case of PAM, wisdom could be drawn from around the world and translated into concrete predictions in order to help prevent or deter terrorist attacks. But a  couple of senators saw it as shocking, grotesque and morally wrong, based on the interpretation that it was  frivolously “betting” on things like whether a world leader would be assassinated, or whether there will be a war in a certain country.

To Dr Weijers it was a huge over-reaction. He has closely analysed the moral problems the politicians had, and whether they were making any mistakes in judgement. “Often if we feel disgusted it could just be because we are unfamiliar with something. Like eating tarantulas. We should try to work out whether there is a genuine moral issue at the heart of it. At the heart of PAM was the possibility of preventing terrorist attacks. If the senators had focussed on this they may have decided it was amazing and run with it.”

Personally, Dr Weijers doesn’t see PAM as betting, but in the United States, legally you need a special licence to run a prediction market. “The senators saw it as betting on death. There are actually websites - death pools - that coordinate people betting on whether famous people will die in the next year. These are frivolous and morally bad. But a purpose of PAM was to prevent potential terrorist attacks, which is surely morally good.”

Crucially, the first steps in Dr Weijers’ framework are to ask whether the critics’ complaints stack up against established facts and the critics’ own moral frameworks. “In many cases, thinking carefully about these simple questions can tell us whether we should take the critics’ repugnance seriously.”

If a potentially unpopular new technology survives the moral assessment, correct framing and naming can go a long way to ensuring that the idea doesn’t gather dust on the shelf. “I would have called it the Anti-Terrorism Prediction Market. I doubt senators would have been so quick to criticise it then.”

Other speakers at the symposium include Dr William Carter from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Dr Joe Burton and Dr Reuben Steff.


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