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Home > Focus > VIRI Annual Meeting and GET Conference, A Short Report

VIRI Annual Meeting and GET Conference, A Short Report

by Jonathan Hankins [1], 22 June 2017

This year's VIRI was held in Tempe Arizona between May 15 and 16 to coincide with the Governance of Emerging Technologies Conference the followed in Phoenix. The Foundation was represented by Board Member Ottavia Bassetti and Foreign Correspondent Jonathan Hankins, who attended both events offering readers the following short first hand report on the proceedings and experience.


As readers may know, the Virtual Institute for Responsible innovation (VIRI) is an NSF funded project hosted by Arizona State university. The VIRI is currently in its fourth year, with the 2017 meeting bringing the institution home to Arizona after two meetings in Europe.

The Bassetti Foundation is a Founding Institutional Affiliate Member, and readers can learn more about its inception and goals here [2], and about earlier meetings here [3].

This year's meeting included representatives from a large portion of the many and recently expanded institution members [4] across the globe, including the universities of Campinas, Cambridge, Manchester, Szeged, Kyung Hee, Copenhagen, Ottowa, Sheffield and Wageningen and other partners including the Interdisciplinary Centre Herzliya, Brookings, Genok Centre for Biosafety and Karlsruhe institute of Technology.

After introductions and an opening speech from Director David Guston, participants concentrated on discovering shared interests in order to build collaboration prospects. This was very much the theme of the meeting (and the VIRI itself), with participants facilitated into working alongside as many fellow partner institutions as possible.

A further focus was in offering the possibility for early career researchers to present their work in panel format for discussion by the entire VIRI community. Michael Bernstein and Robert Smith ran the first panel, presenting their research project on RI through the creation of a series of focus groups within the conference. The second panel addressed issues surrounding open access to information and knowledge, with presentations from Jenny Molloy and Luis Reyes-Galindo and the third saw my own presentation alongside Karsten Bolz in a panel entitled Makers and Entrepreneurs.

All of the panels were well organized and moderated, producing a lot of wide ranging discussion. From a personal perspective I found the feedback and discussion extremely useful in focusing my research question further (the research forms part of my PhD project in RI).

The new soon to be launched VIRI website was also presented to members in a further session, with an afternoon then dedicated to working towards building international collaboration both in terms of between institutions and across the entire VIRI as an entity.

I feel that the event was extremely useful for all those present. Participants learned about the spectrum of projects and interests across the world and several concrete collaboration proposals were begun. We were well fed and watered and even the weather was beautiful. It was an extremely well run and prepared event.


The Fifth Annual Conference on Governance of Emerging Technologies: Law, Policy and Ethics followed on from the VIRI, with several members presenting.

Day 1 saw a panel entirely dedicated to Responsible Research and innovation, featuring papers from Tess Doezema Alberto Aparicio, Hannot Rodriguez and Erik Thornsten, all of whom had participated in the VIRI event. Topics covered ranged from RRI in relation to ethical impact assessment and synthetic biology approaches, to theoretical and practical discussions on principals and challenges to the development of RI.

Sally Randles presented a paper within a session on international governance in which she discussed and described the processes involved in the SMART-Maps project. This project involves several institutions including the Bassetti Foundation, running interventions across six countries. This talk predominantly focused on methodological approaches from a personal experience perspective, but also offered some preliminary findings from the evaluation of the project. Readers can read more about the SMART-Map project here [5].

Jack Stilgoe, another well known author in the RI community also presented a paper in which he discussed and analysed machine learning and social learning within the context of driverless cars. Further sessions discussed gene drives, risk governance and the use of big data, all topics that have been approached by the FGB through this website.

Two VIRI members participated in the plenary session on Emerging technologies and existential or catastrophic risk. Haydn Belfield and Catherine Rhodes presented their work at Cambridge university as (broadly speaking) European approaches were compared to US approaches.

The plenary session on day 2 was entitled Responsible and-or Permissionless innovation, featuring VIRI member Ellen-Marie Fosberg in discussion with Adam Thierer. The plenary was an attempt to set up a debate about how innovation should be approached, with Forsberg presenting a responsible approach and Thierer presenting a free unregulated approach. He argued that an approach of this type would fix any problems that it led to, once they had become apparent, and that therefore permission (from whom is not made clear) was not required. I question the language used by Thierer however. Permissionless implies that some forms of innovation process require the asking of permission from someone in order to continue, but the goal of RI is not to create this type of relationship but a reflexive process. As a result some of the discussion was at cross purposes, and some of the public responses extremely animated and critical. It should be noted that I do of course hold a biased standpoint on this matter however.

VIRI member Lalitha Sundaram presented her experiences of working within a project whose goal was to introduce water testing techniques using genetically modified organisms, highlighting the ethical and political fine lines walked within the decision-making process of any such project. Robert Smith also presented arguments surrounding groundwork for an ethics of promising technologies in a somewhat related session on precaution.

The final day was dedicated entirely to cyber security.

The conference was not only academic in nature. Craig Shank, VP and Assistant General Counsel of Microsoft delivered one of the Key Note speeches, although it came across and rather corporate and non critical in this context.

Young scholars were also offered a place at the conference, with a poster presentation session that included not only PhD level students but also undergraduate. This experience seemed invaluable to those presenting, the session was full and the level of interest and debate meant that it ran over time, which can only be a good sign.

The GET was an informative and well balanced conference that opened the RI debate to a wider audience and opened my eyes to a broader world of interpretation regarding ethics and innovation approaches. Differences between approaches were clear to see, and I came away drawing the conclusion that in order for RI and RRI to be better understood and implemented, contact and discussion of this type will have to take place regularly.

Further details and full schedule are available here [6].


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  1. 1] /schedabiografica/Jonathan Hankins
  2. 2] /en/focus/2013/09/the_virtual_institute_for_resp.html
  3. 3] /en/focus/2015/09/viri_first_annual_meeting.html
  4. 4] /en/focus/2014/07/viri_announces_new_partners.html
  5. 5] /en/focus/2017/01/smart-map_project.html
  6. 6] http://conferences.asucollegeoflaw.com/get2017/
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VIRI Annual Meeting and GET Conference, A Short Report
Articles by:  Jonathan Hankins
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