War and technology are inextricably linked. You cannot always see the effects of technological uses in advance, and this is again shown by the situation in Ukraine. Hopefully we will never experience the consequences of nuclear power stations being shot and bombed, be they by nuclear weapons or not.
Technological applications have both positive and negative sides, and the two are not always easy to differentiate. When we think about nuclear applications, we often immediately think of conflict situations. Nuclear weapons were the fear of the 20th century. They killed 250,000 people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. After that, a lot more people died of the effects of radiation and the survivors had to deal with unimaginable consequences.
In the Cold War, nuclear weapons were used strategically as a method of prevention. At the same time, there is one positive side to nuclear and that is that it can be used to produce climate neutral nuclear energy. Though this too has negative aspects: we have not yet found sustainable solutions for the nuclear waste that is generated, and the production process entails risks.
‘TU Delft students should take courses on philosophy, economics and policy’
An often-heard quote is ‘Guns don’t kill people, people kill people’. This implies that technology is neutral, merely a tool that people use and not the other way round. That it is only the way in which people use technology that makes it good or bad. And that the engineer of a design thus bears no responsibility. But is this really the case? Technology is made for people by people. Their values determine what gets produced and the appearance of a design. Of course designs can also be used in different ways than originally conceived, but the options to do so are limited. This puts a great responsibility on the engineers and of course on the users and regulators.
If engineers accept responsibility for technological applications, they can also influence their usage and consequences. This is no easy task. Engineers would have to understand the potential values associated with their technology and design. The question is then which values are weightier, their own values, the values of a funder, or those of society? Are these values even known and if not, how engineers can find out what they are? And how do they translate those values into societally and economically relevant technological applications?
In short, engineers who use technology ethically should not limit themselves to mathematics, physics and applied engineering. They also need knowledge of philosophy, economics, law and policy. The war in Ukraine is making this abundantly clear. But apart from conflict situations, engineers need to be aware of the consequences and dangers of technological applications. After all, industrial production processes often have negative effects on the environment. It is therefore of utmost importance that all TU Delft students take courses on philosophy, economics and policy. Researchers should look beyond the confines of their technology itself and work with colleagues with social and philosophy backgrounds. If they do this, convergence will definitely benefit society.
Claudia Werker is an Associate Professor Economics of Technology and Innovation at the Faculty of TPM. She has worked at TU Delft since 2007. She is also the Vice Chair of TU Delft’s Works Council.