August 8, 2007

Ethics and cognitive research

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. —The new cognitive technologies promise a great future — machines helping people learn faster, better; new ways for experts to share information; and more efficient ways for people to work using machines. But potential danger lurks in the shadows if these technologies are misused or misunderstood.

“We are talking about a whole new level of ethical and legal considerations that may have impacts in ways we can’t yet even comprehend,” says Wendy Shaneyfelt, member of the Sandia National Laboratories cognition research team that began thinking about these issues early in the research.

Many questions emerge when thinking about these systems, Shaneyfelt says. Who owns a cognitive model that represents a human (cognitive agent) and is responsible for its behavior? Can a cognitive agent be licensed? Can a cognitive agent legally act on a person’s behalf? How can access to a cognitive agent be controlled? What if a cognitive agent performs a business transaction on behalf of a deceased person? Who is responsible for erroneous information supplied by a cognitive agent? What if a cognitive agent shares personal information it is not authorized to share?

In an effort to be ahead of the game and be prepared with answers before the cognitive revolution reaches fruition, Shaneyfelt led a grassroots effort to explore how other emerging and well-established scientific disciplines confronted similar issues and what it would take to develop cognitive systems responsibly.

“We wanted to learn from the experiences that the biotechnology and nanotechnology communities have had as they confront ethical and legal issues in their respective rapidly expanding fields,” says Russ Skocypec, senior manager of the Human, Systems, and Simulation Technologies Department.

The result was the evolution of seven ethical principles and guidelines for the development of cognitive systems.

Working with the cognitive science researchers in Shaneyfelt’s team and consulting with ethicists and psychology professors from the University of New Mexico, a framework was established to provide guidance and practical strategies to proactively address both real and potential ethical issues.

“In general, the principles vary in terms of the specificity of their content,” Shaneyfelt. “Some are broad, like respect for persons, while others are more limited in scope — protecting the confidentiality of a research participant’s data.”

Sandia is a multiprogram laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a Lockheed Martin company, for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. With main facilities in Albuquerque, N.M., and Livermore, Calif., Sandia has major R&D responsibilities in national security, energy and environmental technologies, and economic competitiveness.

Sandia news media contact: Chris Burroughs,, (505) 844-0948