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Brian Green: Ethics, Space Travel, and Pretty Much Everything Else

Brian Green is the Director of Technology Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara. Dr. Green represents the Center in the Partnership on Artificial Intelligence, oversees the Markkula Center Environmental Ethics and Hackworth Fellows, works with the university’s ethics bowl team, and teaches engineering ethics in the Graduate School of Engineering. In this very wide-ranging conversation, we cover genetic engineering, religion, space travel, ethics, artificial intelligence, the Markkula Center and how to create a better future, which may sound impossible unless you listen to this conversation.

Selected Interview Highlights: 

Gavin Cosgrave: What were your career plans when in college at UC Davis?


Brian Green: I thought for sure I was going to be a physicist. I tried to take the advanced math series and discovered I didn’t actually like math very much. I moved more towards biology and got involved in genetic anthropology and plant biotechnology. I ended up majoring in genetics and working on molecular biology laboratory work, but I didn’t like that either.


I graduated and didn’t know what to do with myself, but I had met my wife in college and we knew we wanted to get married. We got married then joined the Jesuit Volunteers International for two years. We went overseas tot the Marshall Islands where I discovered that I enjoyed teaching. I also discovered that science and technology have social impacts.


Back in the United States, I went to grad school and transitioned from genetics towards ethics.


GC: How did religion and genetics play together in your graduate studies?


BG: My master’s dissertation was on the Catholic’s perspective on the genetic manipulation of humans. After all my research, it turned out that the Catholics had a nuanced perspective:  if you’re doing it for therapeutic purposes, the church likes health care and hospitals, and anything that helps people is good. So, the Catholic church is in favor of genetic manipulation if it is to alleviate disease. If it’s just for enhancement or for messing around, then that’s not cool because you’re not helping people.


Pope John Paul said, “Any manipulations of humans will be judged by whether it promotes the natural development of a human person.” So, then the question is, what is the natural development of a human person? That launched me on my PhD on human nature and asking, “what if we use technology to change human nature?”


GC: Is technology changing what it means to be human?


BG: It depends on what you think humans are! If you think that what makes us human is just our rational mind, then you might think that a computer could be rational so it can count as a person. If you say that it’s our capacity for emotion, then you could say that animals have emotions, so we should count them.


GC: Are you worried about job loss from automation such as self-driving cars?


BG: The more I’ve been thinking about autonomous cars, the less I’ve been concerned by it. I think it might be possible to have trucks driving around by themselves but I think it will be a slow and long transition because people won’t accept it for some time, or there will be legal requirements that come in.


GC: Do you think the future world will be better than our current one?


BG: I think we’re creating a world that is more volatile: more opportunities and more risks. We used to be a world with little groups of people in different places that all did their own thing separately, but now we’re all becoming one big planet together. By doing that we become much more powerful and capable of doing much better and worse things.


We’re adding to that inventory in terms of robotics, AI, synthetic biology, nanotechnology can all be dangerous, and have benefits and risks. The question is how we channel them towards good uses and away from bad ones? That requires a functioning political systems, a culture where people can have civil discourse. Hopefully we’d be able to do that, but right now we’re in a state where we’re having difficulty with those.


GC: Is it worth it for humans to travel to space? What questions should be asking?


BG: I’m in favor of human space travel. One of my colleagues here is against it, she thinks if we’re already messing up this planet we shouldn’t mess up another one. I take the opposite perspective, which is that if we’re messing up this planet, we better make sure there are a few people safe somewhere else.


It turns out that humans aren’t very well adapted to space. Even the astronauts that went to the moon seemed to have residual health problems from the radiation that they received from the few days they were in space. I’m very excited about Elon Musk and SpaceX and all those other organizations but I think they’re making it seem easier than it is.


GC: What’s an example of a notable project you’ve done here at the Markkula Center?


BG: I’ve loved working with the Ethics bowl team, with the environmental ethics fellows on the student side. The Markkula Center joined the Partnership on AI last year which includes corporations like Amazon, Apple, Facebook and others who have gotten together to talk about the future of artificial intelligence. But the Ethics bowl team winning the national championship is one of the most exciting things that’s happened.


We’re also working with some Silicon Valley tech companies to do trainings for their employees on ethics. 


GC: What is the importance of studying ethics?


BG: I think ethics is the most practical skill because ethics is about decision making, which will help you in everything you do. Even if you’re just raising a family, you’re still going to be making decisions, and ethics is a way to make good decisions. One of the things people have talked about with technology ethics is that technology has made us very powerful. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should do it. Ethics can look at choices and determine which are good.


GC: If a student was really interested in Ethics or the Markkula center, how could they get involved?


BG: There are several programs for students. We have an environmental ethics fellowship, Hackworth Fellowship where students work with a staff member on a project for the year. We have business ethics interns who work with in Silicon Valley corporations, and health care ethics interns that work in hospitals to learn about the healthcare system. We have student workers here, and there you can come to our programs or join the ethics bowl team.

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