Responsible innovation inspires public confidence in new technologies

By Emily Brown

November 16, 2023
4 min read

Central points

  • The rapid pace of innovation in areas such as quantum, artificial intelligence and new energy technologies raises complex questions for all of us.
  • Responsible innovation is a way for societies and industries to shape the science and technologies of the future, ensuring widespread benefits for all of society.
  • Driven by our Responsible Innovation Future Science Platform, we develop skills and methods to assess the risks and opportunities presented by new technologies.

Scientific innovations are poised to revolutionize our world.

Just consider how technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computers, engineering biology and new energy solutions have created amazing possibilities. Still, leaps forward in research and development come with a number of potential risks and unintended consequences. These require our attention.

The main mission of responsible innovation is to find the right balance, ensure positive results and widespread benefits across society. Many in research and development would say that they are already doing their work responsibly. So what exactly is responsible innovation and what new promise does it hold for government, research and industry?

Dr. Justine Lacey is Director of our Responsible Innovation Future Science Platform. She explained that responsible innovation is a systematic and scientific way of tackling the difficult ethical challenges that arise from new science and technology.

“Our researchers use science to find out what drives public attitudes to new ways of cooking or energy. This will help us map the impacts and protect us from risks in fast-moving fields like AI. It will also help in paving a safe and ethical path for powerful new technologies like quantum,” Justine said.

“Fundamentally, responsible innovation is a way for people to understand the effects of future science and technology on their lives and help shape them for the better.”

The trust factor: tackling big issues with responsible innovation

For the latest in our series of CSIRO Conversations events, we brought together an expert panel of representatives from government, universities and global research sectors. They set out to explore the many facets of responsible innovation in more detail. Trust emerged as a key interest across all sectors. In the public sector, governments are looking to set up roadblocks that build trust. This could allow people to safely engage with new technologies without stifling innovation.

Distrust of corporate Australia has steadily worsened in the wake of COVID-19. The competitive advantage of practicing responsible innovation in the private sector is increasingly supported by a growing body of evidence.

Petra Wagner is the one Deputy head of the Center Innovation Systems and Policy at the Austrian Institute of Technology.

“Companies that not only deliver high-performance products and services, but also drive desirable social change, gain more trust from consumers and shareholders. Transparency is a really important principle in terms of accountability,Petra said.

Our panelists explored the many facets of responsible innovation.

“When you’re dealing with new technologies where there are so many uncertainties, it’s crucial to put all the risks and opportunities out there and create space for dialogue, discussion and consideration.”

Responsible innovation offers a way to tackle big questions from the people using new technologies with robust scientific evidence. Modeling and measuring the impact of future science and technology on society is one approach. Engaging with key stakeholders, end users, communities and industries at the start of the innovation journey to identify and mitigate risks and opportunities is another.

Responsible innovation, global collaboration

These days, long-term planning and international cooperation are more important than ever to manage risks in a globally connected world. An example is Australia signing the Bletchley Declaration for responsible development of artificial intelligence. The European Union and 27 other countries are also signatories.

The move comes as part of a commitment by the Australian government to approach new technologies through a lens of national interest. This involves simultaneously considering the social consequences, economic prosperity and national security risks associated with new technologies.

Identifying critical high-impact technologies early sends a signal to researchers, educators and investors to move in the same direction.

An example is Australia’s National Quantum Strategy. It builds on Australia’s leading capabilities in the field to chart a course for a secure, ethical and trustworthy quantum ecosystem.

Some applications of quantum won’t be possible for another five to ten years. However, Australia already has world-leading capabilities in this area due to investments we made 20 years ago.

Investing in responsible innovation will help gsupernation and industry build and maintain trust. This is essential to making the most of the enormous opportunities that lie ahead of us with technology. That way, the benefits are shared across society and put us in a better position in 20, 50 or even 100 years.

Empowering tomorrow’s innovators

Keeping an eye on the horizon also means thinking about the role of future generations in the development and use of new science and technology.

Alistair Gracie is Professor of Horticulture and Associate Head of Learning and Teaching at the University of Tasmania. He explained that universities are very good at equipping students with scientific expertise.

“But it’s also up to us as educators to enable them to think deeply about the relevance of their science and also its impact on the world,” said Alistair.

Alistair believes that the systematic approach to responsible innovation is good for students.

“It equips them with tools and skills they can take into the workforce. [They will then] be able to evaluate science and innovation and their impacts – both the positive outcomes and the potential unintended consequences,” he said.

That’s why CSIRO and the University of Tasmania have teamed up to design an undergraduate course in responsible innovation. It is the first of its kind. By grounding innovation in a clear sense of its purpose and impact, future scientists and engineers will be empowered to realize their full potential in education and the workplace.

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