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Home > Focus > Notes from the SIENNA Project Final Conference

Notes from the SIENNA Project Final Conference

by Jonathan Hankins [1], 23 March 2021

In the following notes I would like to offer my personal thoughts on the conference experience.

The final conference [2] from the SIENNA Project [3] was held online, between 10 - 12 March 2021.


The opening morning was dedicated to an introduction to the project and overview of findings in the project's 3 main emerging technology areas of interest: human genomics, human enhancement and human-machine interaction.

The afternoon focused on the first of these area, human genomics, including a very interesting keynote from Anna Falk from the Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm.

In a keynote entitled What benefits may genomic science provide for patients in the short and medium long time perspective? - some examples, the presenter explained Crispr gene therapy, the cleft between working on animals and humans and the role of legislation, regulation problems as well as specialization in keeping research within the animal world and out of that human.

This keynote was followed with two further, bringing the focus on the patient's perspective, as first Tamara Hussong Milagre presented What would patients and patient organisations need regarding the regulation of genomic research? and Olga Tzortzatou discussed Research and human rights from a privacy perspective: in benefit of the patient?

The human rights perspective introduced here was a theme that recurred throughout the conference.

Before a presentation and some concluding remarks from Mats Hansson that brought researchers themselves into the spotlight, Amal Matar presented ideas and discussion around proposals for a code of conduct for genomic research.


The morning focused on human enhancement.

After an ethical analysis from Philip Brey and a presentation on Human enhancement: ethics guidelines, regulatory and policy recommendations (including Q&A) from Yasemin J. Erden and Konrad Siemaszko, I was left with the following impressions:

There are many arguments both for and against human enhancement as a field.
There are virtually no guidelines, codes or legislation at this moment in time.
Ethical issues may differ across different forms of enhancement and also between each different technique (for example implants might not be reversable, or risk damage if removed, but wearables might not present the same problems).

The afternoon continued with a really interesting panel (details on participants are available from the program [4]) that raised lots of questions and problems related to human enhancement, not least:

What is normal and what is transgressive?
What are the implications of mood enhancers?
What is a cyborg?
There are lots of difficulties in defining categories.
There are also issue raised of protecting children as parents may make decisions without their consent (they may even be unborn!)

After the lunch break, the focus moved on to CET Artificial Intelligence and Robotics: Ethical, legal and human rights challenges.

After an introduction to the project's key findings in this field and a description of the multi-stakeholder strategy used, Rowena Rodrigues presented a series of proposals for guidelines and policy for AI and Robotics.

This was followed by the presentation of instruments for ethical guidance in Robotics and RI, an analysis of ethical issues and guidelines and legislation before a series of proposals that include:

Create an EU regulatory framework for artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics products and services.
Enhance protection of vulnerable populations (especially the poor, children, minorities and other marginalized groups) from the adverse impacts of AI and robotics.
Measure/review the adequacy of complaints redressal in companies deploying AI and robotics systems in the EU.
Make explicit commitments and take actions to reduce technological surveillance of individuals and prevent discrimination.
Prohibit AI-enabled large-scale scoring of individuals, AI-based racial profiling by default and when used, enforce strict controls.

A round table on ethical and human rights challenges completed the day, again with some interesting take-aways:

It's very difficult to define risk.
The expansion of an ethics by design approach allows ethics as an aim, rather than always being seen as a problematic.
One way proposed to addressed these issues is to look from a human rights perspective. Human rights (unlike ethics) are legally defined.
Build upon the structures that already exist.
It is very important to get the narrative right.


Day 3 was dedicated to CET Governance of emerging technologies: incorporating ethics and human rights, and consisted of a single afternoon session.

The session opened with a keynote lecture before moving on to arguments around a general governance approach.

In Toward the Comprehensive Governance of the Bio/Digital Revolution, Wendell Wallach explained that one of the major problems facing us today is that technological development leads to greater human inequalities. He argued though that it can be nudged in favour of equality, as he believes it still lies in what he calls the 'Collingridge sweet spot'. This requires a change in governance model and a new social contract based upon civil liberties and justice.

He also described the problematic of responsibility bought by technological developments and their application, arguing that AI systems take away responsibility form both individuals and corporations.

The remainder of the day was taken up by presentations on the project's proposed general governance approach that included:

Supplementing research ethics for emerging technologies with an Ethics by Design approach.
Legislation, regulation and technical standards to support ethics of emerging technologies and incentivise the use of ethical guidelines.
Compliance with human rights and ethical values with diverse tools and involvement of a wide range of actors.

The day closed with another panel discussion that once again urged a human rights based approach, before closing words from Albena Kuyumdzhieva.

Some Personal Reflections on the Experience

This was my first full online conference experience, and I wish to express some hopefully constructive feelings (not criticisms) as a part of the learning process that these changed times bring. The online format brings advantages and disadvantages. One of the principal advantages is that the program can be constructed in a way that allows participants to follow all of the talks, rather than having to make a choice between alternatives that are taking place at the same time. The narrative can be told in a linear manner. The fact of participating from my home office should not be understated either. Cost and resource-free.

I found the sessions rather long though. The panel events were stimulating because they were fast moving and brought in a range of expertise and the keynotes were really interesting, but I found long power-point presentations of the project findings difficult to follow.

The event was entirely spoken, while the online format really does present the chance to offer other forms of communication and interaction. Film, animation, cahoots and quizzes (even just for two minutes at a time) could (and do) all add to the experience. I sometimes felt like a watcher more than a participant. Although there was the chance to pose questions through the chat, there was no other human interaction available. The breaks were simply breaks, while I would have liked to have experienced informal contact (with the possibility of breakout chat rooms for example during the breaks), not only to network but also just to exchange ideas between participants (as I have experienced with previous seminar series [5]).

All of the above are personal feelings and questions about how we might be able to gain from this enforced home-based conference format, and should not take away from what was a very well run and informative conference. I would like to thank my hosts, congratulate them on the near completion of their project, and urge readers to take a look at the website. The Policy Briefs [6] are extremely concise and offer a fine overview of several years of hard work.


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Links in this document:

  1. 1] /schedabiografica/Jonathan Hankins
  2. 2] https://www.sienna-project.eu/final-conference/
  3. 3] https://www.sienna-project.eu/
  4. 4] https://www.sienna-project.eu/final-conference/preliminary-programme/
  5. 5] https://www.fondazionebassetti.org/en/focus/2020/11/european_biotechnology_and_soc.html
  6. 6] https://www.sienna-project.eu/publications/policy-briefs/
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Notes from the SIENNA Project Final Conference
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