• 07/11/2013

Munich Center for Technology in Society launches first research projects

Where technology meets society

The world of science is firmly rooted in a wider societal context. Technische Universität München (TUM) founded the Munich Center for Technology in Society (MCTS) to reflect this close relationship. The center is now starting its first research projects, focusing on large-scale technical projects, sociotechnical systems for elderly people, sustainable water management, errors throughout the history of science, and predictive medicine.

Cross section through a human being with a robot hand
How do science and society influence each other? The MCTS reflects this relationship. (Photo: MCTS / TUM)

The Munich Center for Technology in Society looks at the human factor in technology and science, exploring how society impacts research and vice-versa, which ethical factors should be taken into consideration when developing new technologies, and how science and the general public can communicate with each other. Sociologists and ethicists, philosophers and historians, economists and media scholars collaborate with engineers and natural scientists on joint projects at the center.

The scientists carry out empirical research into specific problems in the MCTS labs, also integrating normative and ethical aspects into their work. An MCTS lab comprises interrelated case studies that tie back to a core research topic. The MCTS labs compete with each other and will be continuously evaluated. In five years, the best labs will be transitioned to research groups or special research initiatives.

MCTS is an integral part of the TUM’s institutional strategy, successfully presented to the German Excellence Initiative for universities in 2012. Scientists from the Deutsches Museum, the Munich School of Philosophy, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München and the Universität der Bundeswehr München are involved in the center’s new projects.

Sociotechnical systems, robotics and demographic change
Many people remain physically and mentally active well into their seventies. In many cases, their cognitive abilities such as learning from experience, reasoning and perceptual skills actually improve with age. Yet pensioners are no longer part of the active workforce. Enabling this demographic to work, however, could improve quality of life and unlock a huge pool of talent and professional experience for society at large. Today’s technology can enable older workers to take on creative tasks at home or in environments close to home. As such, this project aims to deploy building and infrastructure robotics in age-appropriate accommodation and to explore whether this technology can be used to establish a decentralized employment network for older citizens. Engineers, medical scientists and philosophers will investigate a number of areas including the different systems that are currently technically feasible and whether or not these scenarios can address the needs of aging populations. They will also look at how people react to this offering − both socially and psychologically − and investigating the economic potential of these technologies.

Water management
Water availability is one of the greatest challenges facing mankind. In some regions of the world, water shortages cause humanitarian catastrophes as well as economic and political crises. In many cases, shortages are due to a lack of technical infrastructure, economic incentives and institutional and legal frameworks. Water management therefore has a crucial role to play here. And any system must take into consideration the natural resources, ecosystems, cultural backgrounds and ethical attitudes of the people affected. The ethics behind the principle of subsidiarity require that people be empowered to help themselves. Sociologists, ethicists, engineers and natural scientists are working together on this project to develop strategies for sustainable water management.

Mistakes, ignorance, contingency, and error in science and technology
The general public is used to hearing about the successes of the scientific community. Insiders, however, know that major breakthroughs are usually built on long periods of seemingly fruitless research and setbacks. Mistakes, ignorance, contingency, and error were, and still are, a part of everyday life in the world of science. To accurately assess the reliability of scientific methods, researchers have to know and factor in their limitations and boundary conditions. A bridge that collapses, for example, is the nightmare of every engineer. Yet there is an element of uncertainty in even the safest engineering project. This project focuses on case studies from the history of engineering, mathematics, IT and economics in a bid to discover how scientists and engineers deal with these unknown factors and to what extent uncertainty can be factored in to scientific undertakings.

From prognosis to predictive medicine
Genetics, pharmacogenetics and biochemical methods have paved the way for health predictions and disease prognoses. This wealth of information gives individuals a much broader base on which to make decisions about their own healthcare. However, the decisions made on the basis of doctors’ predictions have ethical consequences as they may also affect any children the original individual may have. This project analyzes how these developments are placing more and more responsibility on the medical world and society as a whole. It also focuses on the consequences of this inexorable process. Project collaborators are investigating predictive medicine in its current form, along with its rich history and path forward. The project encompasses the fields of medicine, bioethics, scientific theory, health economics, gender research and the history of medicine.

Major sociotechnical projects in Germany
Our society faces a number of major sociotechnical challenges spanning areas such as mobility, renewable energy, and information and communication networking. In many cases, progress can only be made through large-scale projects. In Germany and many other European countries, non-governmental organizations and the general public have become increasingly interested in projects of this kind. Controversial initiatives include Berlin-Brandenburg airport, the railway project Stuttgart 21 and various plans for new wind, water and biogas power plants. This project aims to investigate the success factors and execution barriers that apply to major projects in the field of mobility. Engineers, economists, philosophers, ethicists, mathematicians and computer scientists aim to analyze how information is collected, processed and analyzed during decision-making processes and develop methods for assessing the risks of major sociotechnical projects. The project also aims to improve our understanding of complex sociotechnical systems and develop early warning systems highlighting the need to communicate social, ethical and cultural issues.

Further information

Prof. Klaus Mainzer
Technische Universität München
Director of the Munich Center for Technology in Society
T: +49 89 289 25360
E: mainzerspam prevention@tum.de
W: http://www.mcts.tum.de

Technical University of Munich

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