The Epinet Project

At present there exists a great diversity for assessing the impacts of science and technology on society and the environment. This project explores new ways for bringing more of these methodologies into concert with each other, as well as with the concerns of innovators, policy makers and citizens.

EPINET introduces the concept of epistemic networks as a way of conceptualizing complex developments within emerging fields of sociotechnical innovation. It establishes a weak or "soft" framework within which the plurality of different assessment practices can be explored in a concerted and holistic manner. EPINET uses this concept to study four cases:

1) wearable sensors for activity and physiological monitoring;
2) cognitive technical systems (mainly robotics)
3) synthetic/ in-vitro meat, and
4) smart grids for power supply

EPINET is an EU funded project under the seventh framework program, coordinated by the Centre for the studies of the sciences and humanities, University of Bergen.

Scientific Background:

During the last 30-40 years a number of different assessment methods have been developed and implemented on national, international and EU levels to deal with the societal and environmental implications of new sciences and technologies. Although much has been achieved in fields such as technology assessment, ELSA studies and public participation these are also characterised by great diversity and a plurality of methods. Although diversity may be a resource it can also turn out a decisive hindrance to communication and action for principal end users, such as policy makers or publics. In part, the diversity of these fields comes from the fact that different forms of assessments are undertaken for a number of different purposes. To determine risk or toxicity levels will not necessarily increase public debate; public perception, debate and precautionary approaches to risk assessment may be perceived as obstacles to innovation, and so on. Where real underlying conflict of interest exists, it might be better to spell out the underlying values and presuppositions without seeking further consensus. However, differences of perception may also be due to (differing) values and epistemologies built into assessment practices and methods themselves. Especially here there is potential for improvement. We use the term epistemic network to refer to three levels of analysis and practice:

The first denotes contexts of innovation, denoting complex and intersecting relations of professionals, technologies, citizens, users, entrepreneurs, business and policy-makers forming new constellations of collaboration, experimentation and reflection to meet societal challenges.

The second relates to political levels of governance. These may try to accommodate innovation to meet so-called grand societal challenges, such as the goals set out in the Europe 2020 Strategy, but also with addressing concerns of publics and citizens.

The third level relates to the context of assessment, i.e. the activities of people working on the interfaces of different scientific disciplines and policy making in order to better assess and evaluate the implications of new and emerging technologies.

It is the potential for tighter integration between three main fields of practice, i.e. contexts of innovation, governance and contexts of assessment, which serves as the analytic point of departure as well as the critical (regulative and normative) goal for EPINET.

The notion of epistemic communities emerged within the academic field of international relations (Haas 1992). EPINET proceeds to expand on conventional notions of knowledge and expertise by situating it as practice-based and locally contingent (Polanyi 1958), as also identified in the “Practice Turn” in Science and Technology Studies (e.g., Schatzki et al., 2001). EPINET also builds on and expands the notion of epistemic communities into that of epistemic networks by shifting the focus from epistemic and normative commitments of expert communities to networks forming as the result of new imperatives for S&T development as outlined in EU policy frameworks such as the Horizon2020 initiative. In principle, therefore, anybody responding to or contesting a grand societal challenge by engaging in innovation activities together with others is a potential member of an epistemic network. Such networks emerge on the intersections of communities traditionally separated as “expert” and “lay” knowledge. On that account, common experiences, insights, knowledge and creativity have to be included as relevant forms of expertise. The same, of course, goes for knowledge and normative commitments held by user-based communities, such as civil society organisations and other NGOs, patient organisations, professional organisations or labour unions. One shift of focus which we explore, but which has been recognised neither in the academic analysis nor practice of technology assessment, is to move from the implied assumption that methodological elaboration will be sufficient to encompass all the salient factors, to the idea that some of the issues here require appropriate carefully designed institutional changes.

The project runs through three main stages of development:

Initial assessment (months 1-12): The first stage corresponds to a general mapping of methodologies, networks and policy issues, including intrinsic values, framing premises and purposes shaping methodologies and procedures. Two work packages (WPs 1 and 2) will work on cross-cutting (conceptual and disciplinary) perspectives, investigating the potentials and limitations of methodologies, disciplines as well as central policy concepts dealing with grand societal challenges. At the same time, and in coordination with WPs 1 and 2, work will start on the specific cases (WPs 3-6). Here, each case will be studied in accordance with dominant TA methodologies whereas at the same time focusing specifically on epistemic networks, grand societal challenges and the policy concepts meant to govern them. Hence, this stage will also serve as a general mapping, both of the context of innovation (R&D) as well as the context of assessment (the different methodologies and their bearings on the cases).

Embedding assessments (13-24): The second stage expands initial assessments by bringing them into interaction with different epistemic networks; scenario development activities will bring together broad groups of thinkers and practitioners to explore pressing policy issues through two workshops. The workshops enables the co-creation of main issues on the intersections of policy and innovation, research and development and as such enables industrial players to engage in reflexive learning with diverse experts doing assessments of the particular cases. In order to bridge the institutional, philosophical, professional and cultural perspectives that are relevant to thinking systematically about the prospects of emerging technologies, the dialogue and research leading to scenarios is at once open ended and highly structured.

Comparison and integration (months 25-36): The final stage will compare, analyse and work out the general implications of the project. Here, the results from the implications workshop will be distributed through the project’s channels as well as attendant publications describing the process and outcomes to public and academic audiences. The feedback from participants and end users will be analysed along with preceding results from all work packages: first of all, for each case this concerns the results gained through the distinct methodologies; in a next step, this must also be placed in relation to the results from the cross-cutting WPs 1 and 2. Taken together, results will be used to draw conclusions and for recommendations for assessment practitioners, policy makers and other end users and interested parties.

University of Bergen
seventh framework programme

Case: The smart grid

With goals set to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while maintaining security of electricity supply to end-users, renewable energy technologies are projected to be widely deployed by the middle of this century. A paradigm shift in electricity supply is required because the traditional centralized way of generation, transport and one-way distribution through the grid will be changed toward decentralized systems and two-way distribution. This will involve and impact all stakeholders in the chain from generating companies, system operators and consumers. Especially with decentralized electricity generation units such as photovoltaic solar energy modules and micro combined heat and power units, the traditional consumer can now act as a generating company and even sell or trade his electricity on the market. Here, ICT and artificial intelligence embodied in ‘smart meters’ will play an important role in the emerging technology of smart electricity grids. Where in the past the consumer could solve an electricity failure at home by just replacing a fuse, (s)he may now need the assistance of a software engineer or a helpdesk. In other fields, consumer dependence on high-tech helpdesks has turned already into nightmares for low-tech consumers. If such concerns are not taken on board adequately upstream during the early stages of the smart net innovation, it may turn the whole technology into a failure in the implementation phase, which we cannot afford in view of the desired transition to a large scale decentralized renewable energy system. Within EPINET the focus will be in the area of consumer interaction with both the smart meter and its possibilities of control of her/his demand. We aim to elicit the conditions that need to be met for a smart electricity grid to be a socially robust and socially acceptable technology. This also involves legal dimensions related to privacy, data access, but also to discrimination and unfair exclusion. New economic models of electricity tariffs may tempt the consumer to adapt his electricity usage so as to minimize his electricity bill, by, e.g., delivering his surplus electricity to his neighbor or local electricity cooperative or a nation-wide electricity trader or producer.

Assessment methodologies involved: media analysis, risk and uncertainty analysis, vision assessment, socio-technical analysis, multi-scale integrated assessment, ethics and law.

Case: Wearable sensors

The case study focuses on recent developments of wearable sensors, including biosensors, for which numerous applications are being piloted or promoted through futuristic visions of high-tech sensor and other monitoring technologies. These new-emerging technologies promise great benefit, e.g., more efficient care and the improved safety of persons in a variety of situations, but there remain many unanswered questions about the implications of this new wave of innovations and how it may go forward. Through this case study we seek to contribute substantively to ongoing evaluations of Europe's innovation policy and the strategic agendas that aim to ensure the future of Europe's competitiveness in accordance with the Europe 2020 and Horizon 2020 initiatives. We observe that dominant social-cultural and political sentiments resonate in policies resting on explicit promising and expectations that science and technology will solve common societal, environmental and existential challenges. What is particularly relevant for our case study is how such expectations are embedded in visions of the future in which Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) continue to conjoin with other technologies and scientific research. In other words, ICTs are seen as key-enablers with a central role in planning, preparing and mastering the future.

The development of wearable sensors is intimately tied in with visions of more personalised healthcare and shifting roles and responsibilities in care-taking—from healthcare to selfcare, away from clinics, into the home and on the move. We have focused our attention on wearable sensors as an emerging market rather than simply an emerging new domain of technological innovation—wearable sensors as consumer products and services evolving from first markets of specialised occupations and affluent consumption into mainstream mass markets of smartphone-enabled apps and 'hubs' for mobile data gathering, processing and communication. We also observe that ongoing monitoring of health and fitness-related statuses results in new kinds of informational bodies and selves, along with expectations of data gathering and data sharing for the benefit of individuals and groups. We observe new fronts for knowledge dissemination to support and encourage the use of monitoring devices and services.
We consider the emerging ecology of devices and services, operating across the spectrum of healthcare and selfcare—of clinical practice shifting towards remote monitoring and self-monitoring, a growing ageing technologies market, a growing amateur athletes and fitness market. In addition to that we observe how media coverage of self-tracking devices predominately communicates big visions about the future of medicine and innovation in consumer electronics. The news portray a healthcare revolution which opens up questions about the usefulness of biological and physiological knowledge, considering also how such data is empirically communicated to users of self-tracking devices through apps and well-designed web dashboards.

Within the growing field of consumer health informatics there is increasing focus on the question of how patients can participate in and have control over the management of their own data. Novel service designs play a central role in this development, but so does citizen selfcare activism or self-hacking with its focus on open data and privacy protection—the question of who owns the data and what can be done with it.

In relation to these considerations, we also address the question of who needs care—a complex problematic of prioritisation in healthcare delivery, and in clarifying what exactly is involved when we talk about taking care. The European medical systems are financially burdened and have to make hard choices about priorities in the delivery of medical care, bearing in mind that the largest cost factor by far turns on common lifestyle, ageing-related and often chronic conditions. Simultaneously the argument goes that these costly conditions and subsequent interventions can be significantly delayed or prevented entirely with adequate selfcare. Prevention lies in taking measures to manage and maintain one's own health over the long term, however, prevention is also a Public Health target, relying on political and financial instruments in attempting widespread behavioural change. The question of who is in need of care will therefore have to consider the complex textures of professional care, home care, and selfcare, involving both medical and non-medical interventions as well as preventative measures—to capture the distinction between healthcare and selfcare in clarifying who cares and what kind of caring takes place. On the one hand, the boundaries blur between professional care and care for one's own medical condition or health and wellbeing more generally. On the other hand, the proliferation of new devices in the free market, of online data services and consultation, active participation and use, is redrawing these boundaries with significant implications for material production and design in this market, and regulatory intervention.

Assessment methodologies involved: ethics, law, media studies, knowledge assessment (pedigree analysis), socio-technical analysis.

Case: autonomous robotics systems for the use of citizens

Whereas artificial intelligence for a long time now has been located in isolated software processing, research over a decade or so in cognitive and neuroscience have changed the outlook of machine intelligence towards a paradigm of embodied intelligence. This has had repercussions in the field of robotics and automation: increasingly, systems are being developed with learning and cognitive capabilities which are integrated with state-of-the-art sensoring technologies, thereby displaying human-like traits in flexible, adaptive and interactional systems. In this way, it is imagined, robotics will take a step towards socially embedded machines for use in new areas of activity and possibly address novel societal challenges on large scales. Initiatives are under way to develop “emotionally intelligent systems”, for instance, for use in different household tasks or for caring for the elderly, and as companions in love and sex. Robots can also be used to maintain infrastructures under pressure from increasing urbanisation or for monitoring, preserving and managing the environment. Although these developments have potentially far-reaching impact, most research into cognitive technical systems is not in a mature stage of development. This work package especially focuses on efforts within the European Union to create more autonomous robotics systems to meet with main societal and environmental challenges. It investigates different meanings and implications of “autonomy” as understood by lawyers and ethicists, and by engineers and roboticists.

Autonomy for robots has been part of the visions and dreams of roboticists since the very inception of robotics and remains until this day part real, part promise. As of quite recent, however, this vision is not merely directing the efforts of researchers and experimentalists; it is increasingly also informing and shaping main innovation policies, and efforts of legislators, ethicists and lawyers. The EPINET project will bring together experts in robotics, law, sociology and ethics, to explore together how visions of robotics autonomy inform both the making of robotic devices and of ethical and legal frameworks.

Certain forms of autonomous and semi-autonomous capabilities are already achievable and they have a lively presence in popular culture. They are aimed at assistive support to humans in relatively unstructured environments—in occupational and private activities, in the home, in public places, and under specialised performance-critical circumstances (e.g., in safety, rescue and care operations). Certain forms of human-machine relations have also emerged with the development of so-called companion robots, pets and play-mates, whose application domain is mainly in developmental training of children, in the care of dementia patients, and for private companionship including sex. The idea is that robotics will effectively expand into addressing other pressing societal needs: assisting in the care for sick, disabled and elderly persons, assisting in the monitoring and cleaning up of the environment, optimising the use of industrial resources, and improving on European competitiveness, economic growth and job creation more generally.

There are however, enormous technical and scientific challenges to be overcome which raises a number of questions, e.g., about the relevance of soft vs. hard AI, whether or not more human- or animal-like robots are a Sisyphus project and, thereby, which functions and goals are realistically relevant and desired in robotics developments with reference to effective and legitimate innovation policies. There are also several ethical and legal challenges related to the potential expansion of robotic capacities into new fields. In order to deal with the new uncertainties and risks that the introduction of such (semi-)autonomous robots in society might give rise to, new anticipatory and precautionary approaches to law and ethics are encouraged. These seem necessary to provide predictability and stability for the new technological innovations, but also serve to deal with potential undesirable side effects before they arise. However, questions pertain to the ways in which robotics futures can be known and regulated: on whose vision of the future are we to base our predictions and assumptions?

The EPINET project will explore how different disciplines and professions relate and respond to robotics autonomy, especially with regard to care and companionship. The project aims to explore and discuss the ways in which different disciplines and professions come together and mutually shape each other in attempts to deal with societal challenges through increased machine autonomy. Our goal is to shed light on the wider role of robotics in the near-future within European innovation policies, aiming not only for excellent science base and industrial competitiveness, but also for better and more inclusive societies.
The shape and outcome of autonomy for robotics systems and in the law will differ according to who is allowed to define and answer such questions. EPINET brings together representatives of different epistemic networks who brings their respective knowledge and perspectives on the issues to be discussed. We have invited roboticists, ethicists, lawyers and engineers to address such questions through targeted presentations and discussions.

Assessment methodologies involved: ethics, law, socio-technical analysis, vision assessment.

Case: Synthetic meat

Following the expansion of stem cell science and tissue engineering for biomedical purposes over the last fifteen years, scientists in Europe and North America have been growing cells taken from pigs, turkeys, cows, goldfish and sheep to grow lumps of muscle tissue that could be consumed as food. The technology, termed In Vitro Meat or cultured meat, is still in the early stages but has been funded by groups including the Dutch government and NASA. Currently the main centres are in Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands and the US. There are also three start-up companies looking for routes to commercialisation. The technology is presented as having a range of potential benefits. Perhaps the most high-profile claimed benefit today relates to the potential impact on climate change. Drawing upon the UN report 'The Long Shadow of Livestock' that argues the livestock and dairy industry contributes to climate change more than the entire transport industry, In Vitro Meat protagonists have developed a number of preliminary life-cycle analysis report demonstrating significantly less environmental damage. Socially and morally we must recognise that In Vitro Meat represents such a fundamental re-configuration of the typical organisation of meat production and animal kinship that it inherently raises many clear moral questions: is it ethically right to produce artificial meat? Is it 'meat'? Is it somehow “unnatural” or does this only appear to be so until we come to accept the idea? Is it vegetarian to eat In Vitro Meat?

A first tentative conclusion of the review of the state of the art of assessing the societal impacts of in vitro meat, is that the different fields of science, ethics, art and environmental analysis either already are connected, or are likely to be able to be connected. Researchers from the various fields as well as artists refer to each other in their texts, and the majority of arguments we come across, are either similar or appear commensurable. In these two senses one may claim that there already is a certain integration of the assessments, and integration between assessments and the research and innovation context for the technology.

In terms of substance, the language of ethics or at least ethics arguments appears to be shared across several of the authors writing on IVM. Arguments about utility and above all the potential of IVM to reduce animal suffering are posed and/or investigated or analyzed across the field. Often, such arguments are assessed in terms of their soundness or validity. In a few instances, one can find other types of analysis, in which the arguments are not assessed, but used as a point of departure for a broader societal analysis (not oriented towards decisions about IVM). We see that the broader perspective of environmental analysis – for instance including the perspective of Jevons’ Paradox – is not present at the moment in the scarce assessment literature, but we see no reason why it cannot be brought in on the same analytical plane and the same discussion. The same can be said about the contributions from artists such as Oron Catts, Ionat Zurr, Cathrine Kramer and Zac Denfeld and others. Their work could be interpreted as attempts to “make the invisible visible” and thereby explicate better possible societal impacts for the debate […].

In short, the networks that identify themselves as either proponents/innovators of IVM, or as scholars/artists studying and commenting on IVM, are in contact, and there is a level of integration in terms of what they say and what they do. On the other hand, the connection between these networks and those of public policy appears less tight, in particular in the sense that proponents of IVM perceive their work as poorly funded and poorly supported by research policies. This is an interesting aspect of this case: IVM seen as a future and emerging technology easily makes headlines in the media, but it has not made it to the research priorities. This is perceived as a serious problem and hindrance from IVM research and innovation actors, to the extent that individual scientists are beginning to doubt the realism of IVM. We have seen two ways of dealing with this situation in the assessed literature. First, there are attempts at providing better, sounder and more convincing arguments why IVM is doable and good (notably in terms of sustainability and ethics), in order for policy-makers and the general public to change their minds. Secondly, there are diagnoses of IVM as being unattractive to policy-makers and the general public – notably conceived as the Yuck factor – and then discussions of how to shape/re-shape IVM so that it could become attractive.

From our overview, we may add that this diagnosis can be strengthened by going more deeply into the fact that IVM until now has not received a lot of research funding. More is to be said about the reasons for this than the Yuck factor. First, we have more to say as a Consortium, e.g. along the lines of the environmental analysis provided. Secondly, it would be interesting to listen to the reasons and arguments provided by the policy-makers who haven’t been or aren’t convinced by the pro-IVM arguments. This provides EPINET with a candidate for what we could try to achieve in the embedding phase of the project. It is the potential for tighter integration between these three main fields of practice [policy, innovation and assessment, our comm.] ... which serves as the analytic point of departure as well as the critical (regulative and normative) goal for EPINET. In the case of IVM, therefore, it seems that it is an interesting challenge to focus on the integration between policy on one hand and innovation-and-assessment on the other. We believe that the policy issue “Should IVM research be funded?” is the one that (a) appears as the more important one for the actors in the context of innovation and (b) is the one for which there is a disconnect and a potential for tighter integration. But this question should not be decoupled from the question of the shaping/reshaping of the technology. If we are to discuss if IVM should be funded, we should simultaneously discuss what it is that is going to be funded or not. To achieve a balanced perspective on this, we – the EPINET Consortium – would need to ask that question very broadly.

Assessment methodologies involved: multi-scale integrated assessment, ethics, media analysis

Cross-cutting perspectives

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University of Bergen
Cesagen, Lancaster University
University of Sussex
LSTS Vrije Universiteit Brussel
Utrecht University
European Commission – Institute for the Protection and Security of the Citizen, DG Joint Research Centre
Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona-Institut de Ciència i Tecnologia Ambientals