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By  Emily Brown 16 November 2023 4 min read

Key points

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

Scientific innovations are poised to revolutionise our world.

Just consider how technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing, engineering biology and new energy solutions have created astounding opportunities. Yet, leaps forward in research and development come with a raft of potential risks and unintended consequences. These demand our attention.

The main mission of responsible innovation is to strike the right balance, ensuring positive outcomes and widespread benefits across society. Many in research and development would say that they already do their work responsibly. So what exactly is responsible innovation, and what fresh promise does it hold for government, research, and industry?

Dr Justine Lacey is the Director of our Responsible Innovation Future Science Platform. She explained that responsible innovation is a systematic and scientific way of approaching the tricky ethical challenges arising from new science and technologies.

“Our researchers are using science to find out what drives public attitudes toward new ways of making food or energy. This will help us map out the impacts and guard against risks in fast-moving fields like AI. It will also help lay a safe and ethical pathway for powerful new technologies like quantum,” Justine said. 

“At its heart, responsible innovation is a way for people to understand the impacts of future science and technology on their lives and help shape them for the better."

The trust factor: tackling big questions with responsible innovation

For the latest in our series of CSIRO Conversation events, we brought together an expert panel featuring representatives from government, university, 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 put up guardrails that engender trust. This could allow people to engage safely with new technologies, without stifling innovation.

Distrust in corporate Australia has steadily deteriorated in the wake of COVID-19. Increasingly, the competitive advantage of practising responsible innovation in the private sector is backed by a growing body of evidence.

Petra Wagner is the Deputy Head of Centre 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, are gaining more trust with consumers and shareholders. Transparency is a really important principle in terms of responsibility,” Petra said.

Our panellists explored the many facets of responsible innovation.

“When you’re dealing with emerging technologies, where there are so many uncertainties, putting all the risks and opportunities out there and making space for dialogue, discussion and deliberation is crucial."

Responsible innovation offers a way of tackling big questions from the people who use new technologies with robust scientific evidence. Modelling 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 collaboration are more important than ever for managing risks in a globally connected world. A case in point is Australia signing onto the Bletchley Declaration for the responsible development of AI.  The European Union and 27 other countries are also signatories.

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

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

One example is Australia’s National Quantum Strategy. It builds on Australia’s leading-edge capabilities in the field to chart a course to a safe, 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 field because of investments we made 20 years ago.

Investing in responsible innovation will help government and industry build and maintain trust. This is critical to making the most of the enormous opportunities in front of us with technology. That way, benefits are shared right across society, and putting us in a better position in 20, 50 or even a 100 years' time.

Empowering tomorrow's innovators

Keeping an eye on the horizon also means thinking about the role of future generations in developing and using emerging science and technology.

Alistair Gracie is a 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 science expertise.

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

Alistair thinks the systematic approach of 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 partnered to co-design an undergraduate course in responsible innovation. It is the first of its kind. By rooting innovation in a clear sense of its purpose and impacts, future scientists and engineers will be empowered to realise their full potential in education, and in the workplace.

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