Lecturer: Prof. Stefano Mazzoleni from The BioRobotics Institute of Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies, Pisa

By Giulia Bovassi –

Gruppo di Ricerca interdisciplinare in Neurobioetica (GdN)

Masterclass in “Neurobioethics and Roboethics”, 2nd edition, 1st lesson
Lecturer: Prof. Stefano Mazzoleni from The BioRobotics Institute of Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies, Pisa




The second Masterclass in Neurobioethics “Neurobioethics and Roboethics”, which will be focused this year upon the proposals coming from robotics. Robotics is a large branch of study in continuous and rapid development, not only from the industrial perspective, but also from the medical, family and private ones. Man-machine hybridization has already come about, occupies numerous daily spaces, and raises the ethical and existential questions about what we have to say about this new identity.

GdN, in partnership with the UNESCO Chair in Bioethics and Human Rights and the Science and Faith Institute, hosted in the prestigious academic headquarters of the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum, has undertaken a watchful, refined interdisciplinary investigation, which will continue during this and the next four years, in order to achieve the best possible result in the professional, academic research, which is dedicated to the new questions that bioethics, philosophy, anthropology, medicine, engineering, law, theology, interreligious and multicultural sciences raise for the today’s man. The studies of the neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero regarding the human head transplantation, have created an intellectual sensation.

Dr. Stefano Mazzoleni, lecturer and Coordinator of the Bioengineering Laboratory of Rehabilitation, through his speech titled “Human-machine interaction: can robots and AI help improve our quality of life, particularly the quality of life of people with disability?”, guided the participants through the logic of robotic engineering applied to the user-help, referring especially to patients who face difficulties managing their daily routine due to their physical limits. The concern for these needs pushes biorobotics in the direction of service, which looks for the good man.
A similar interest in the applications and the ethics of robotics was born recently with the advent of a new engineering oriented to products’ usability, beyond the strictly industrial-mechanical context, to families and citizens’ homes. There is talk of the domestic usage of an entity built to enter into a relationship with the needs of man (an element which has been initially designed almost exclusively to accomplish difficult and complex industrial jobs).

The very origin of the term “robot”, derived from “robota“, refers to heavy work, an index of the nature inherent in the functional-collaborative interaction with human effort, a cooperation that does not (or should not) propose replacement for optimization, namely the efficiency that takes away dignity, but rather should support the thinking subject as the true protagonist. «Observing nature to understand its needs, in the wake of what Leonardo da Vinci has done», educating future engineers in the renaissance model of their profession, so that, seeing trauma or disability, they understand how to take the opportunity to put individual skills at service of others. This fundamental assumption of biorobotics, which has close to its heart the dignity and the good of the person, is absolutely essential; it is indispensable because, without such trajectories, the “ability to make” surrenders to the causes of its birth, namely the “creating know-how” gains the probability of destroying / threatening mankind, a risk that is considered to be therefore acceptable. Cinematography and literature on biorobotics, since the ’80s and decisively surging in the 2000s, suggests new goals. Since 2000, through «bio-inspiration» many capacities not previously explored has taken shape: generation of movement through sensors; wondering why, observing natural and animal bodies to overcome their limits through robotic replication. This progress has led from rigid robotics to neurorobotics and “soft robotics.

Currently, biorobotics explains the medical implant of organs and artificial limbs where they are absent, bringing in close contact doctors, researchers, scientists, engineers whose work will be a qualitative improvement of the life of patients for whom biorobotics will be an advantage. For example, the robotic hand, whose functioning Dr. Mazzoleni has highlighted, and which could be summarized in the interception of the electric impulse, thanks to the study of nerve signals, referring to the intentionality of moving the robotic hand as the human one usually moves. Biorobotics also promises benefits such as smaller incisions, shorter hospitalization, reduced risk of infection, less pain, faster healing times.

Asimov’s “I, Robot” presents a futuristic dystopian vision of distant worlds in which the natural and artificial cohabit a single body, a single identity or dimension. Such works move the collective imagination between nightmare and dream, fear and hope. On the one hand, the expert responds by releasing us from the anxieties related to robot’s autonomy, the exit from the calculated control, the serenity that derives from the construction of a humanoid machine, which can act (according to the dictates of the human) but it is not able to want since they learn what their creator wants to let them know.


Considering the robot as a tool does not scare, but to think of it as similar to the human species does frighten. Prof. Mazzoleni spoke of the “Uncanny valley“, a perturbing valley, a “sudden fall” in that place where we lose the serene familiarity with objects which have a human appearance. The technical aspects and scientific disciplines treated so far have noted the positive contributions of the relationship between man and machine, but they do not remove that feeling of extraneousness and uncertainty. In this context, bioethics is called to take a buffer function thanks to the critical and rational reflection that the dialogue between research fields, near or far, can build when the object is a subject, i.e. the human being. It encourages the beneficial contribution that robotics, together with artificial intelligence, are making and are destined to cultivate. Preventive ethical vigilance should not degenerate into the trivialization of itself. Instead it is necessary to consider the hypothesis that not all philosophical-scientific movements have close to heart the integral good of the human being, so acting according to the measure of the productive, empowering or efficient advantage, even if this should force us to consider the human being as an entity not dissimilar to what everyone wants to find in his own nature, which is as a bastion of innovation. Conversing about the irreplaceable nature of the human presence in collaboration with technology is the proactive strategy implemented by this first, very rich, appointment, whose spirit resides exactly in living what we know, together with what remains ahead.

VIII International Bioethics Conference in Bogotá

By Santiago Marcet – 

The Director of the UNESCO Chair in Bioethics and Human Rights, Dr. Alberto García Gómez, attended the VII International Congress of Bioethics held by the Universidad Militar Nueva Granada in Bogotá, Colombia, during the 3rd, 4th and 5th of October.


In his lecture titled “Neurobioethics, Placing the Human Being at the Center of Neuroscience, Ethics, and Law” Dr. García reviewed some of the most prominent topics in the field of neurotechnology, and as the title suggests, he was able to explore the ways in which the human being ought to remain the gravitational center of such a rapidly evolving reality.

The first issue Dr. García addressed was the need to re-formulate the ways in which we think about our brain. What is the relation between mind and brain? Despite the common claims that both are one and the same thing, we are still unable to locate the human sense of identity and self within any of the 28 substructures of the brain. The intangibility of human singularity invites us to think of the human being not only as an material entity, but also as a transcendent one: by means of rationality, we are able to place our inclinations beyond the contingencies of our material body, interact with others in society and foment virtue.


This perception of the human being introduced Dr. García’s next discussion, namely the bioethics of neuroscience. As he insisted, a position open to progress and change must belong to all bioethicists, as long as the overarching anthropological view is not lost. Moral judgement, he stated, must focus on two elements when talking about neuroscientific ends: the means by which they are achieved and their intention. Drawing on this distinction, Dr. García talked about the essential differences between therapy and enhancement, which lead him to address Transhumanism in a neutrally critical way: the disposition to endow the human being with a higher degree of dignity by means of biological enhancement can prove to be a slippery slope, and common good must prevail over individual dispositions. Many questions surround this topic: does all scientific advance constitute progress? Will enhanced human capabilities increase the already existing gap between the rich and the poor? Will the transhuman being constitute a new paradigm that will make the concept of human singularity blur? These and many other issues should always be addressed bearing the idea of human dignity in mind.


Reversing the actors of his previous discussion, Dr. García talked about the neuroscience of ethics. Or in other words, the ways in which neuroscience can help us understand the intricacies of our moral thought. He explained the problems that arise from the implantation of recent theories that deny the existence of human free will. If there is indeed a measurable relation between certain brain structures and human behavior, if human choices are nothing more than the end of a chain of causality that is merely material, he states, the concepts of responsibility (in moral terms) and imputability (in legal terms) lose all meaning.


Dr. García finished his lecture reminding us that human dignity is not derived from the complexity of our biological structures nor from our mental functions and faculties. Rather, it is found in the metaphysical reality that goes along the fact of being human: transcendence.

The Global Bioethics of Genomics and Human Enhancement in the 21st Century

The UNESCO Chair will host a cultural and academic encounter on “The Global Bioethics of Genomics and Human Enhancement in the 21st Century” at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum and the European University of Rome on December 21, 2016.

The Meetings surrounding this event will shape the investigation and work of the International Network of Bioethics, Aesthetics, Technoscience, and Biorights. Director of the UNESCO Chair, Alberto Garcia, will present on the theme “Bioethics and Global Art: The transforming power of human behavior through art.” Later in the day, Dr. Amparo de Jesús Zárate Cuello of the Universidad Militar Nueva Granada will speak on “Bioethics, Euthanasia, Biorights: Considerations regarding biomedical and biotechnical advances in man’s scientific shift toward posthumanism.”

A full program of the events can be seen here.



Chair Director participates in Council of Europe congress on emerging technologies

By Michael Baggot

UNESCO Chair Director Alberto Garcia participated in international conference “Emerging Technologies and Human Rights” on May 4-5, 2015. The event was organized under the auspices of the Belgian Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France.

Garcia’s presence corresponds to the Chair’s interest in the bioethical implications of nanotechnological advances. For instance, technological developments allow neurosurgeons to diagnosis and treat symptoms of Parkinson disease. While the medical benefits of such procedures are laudable, the methods used raise important questions regarding the permissibility of intrusive techniques with the potential of psychological alternation. Further questions arise regarding the decree to which such technologies could affect free will, the rights to information gathered through such procedures, and the need to craft new biomedical legislation capable of addressing rapid chances.

Studies by the Rathenau Instituut and the Center for the Study of Sciences and Humanities of the Bergen University in Norway were the chief documents used to guide discussion. A schedule of the event is found below.



Ms Gabriella Battaini-Dragoni, Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe

– Representative of Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE)

M. Dirk van Eeckhout, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Belgium to the Council of Europe



Chair: Dr Anne Forus, Chair of the Preparatory Group for the Conference

 Reminder about objectives and approach of the Conference


Dr Anne Forus, Chair of the Preparatory Group for the Conference

Driving force for developments


Prof. Andy Stirling (United Kingdom), Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex

 Presentation of the background studies

o From Bio to NBIC convergence – From Medical Practice to Daily Life


Dr Rinie van Est and Dr Dirk Stemerding (Netherlands), Rathenau Instituut

o Report on ethical issues raised by emerging sciences and technologies


Prof. Roger Strand and Prof. Matthias Kaiser (Norway), Center for the Study of Sciences and Humanities, Bergen University

Questions and clarification

11.00 – 11.30 BREAK

11.30 – 13.00 SESSION 2 – TECHNOLOGY, INTERVENTION AND CONTROL OF INDIVIDUALS (Rapporteur: Dr Michael Fuchs, Germany)

Chairs: Prof. …

Prof. …

Introductory presentation: what is at stake?


Prof. …

Ethical and societal perspectives


Prof. Jean-Noël Missa (Belgium), Co-director of the Interdisciplinary Research Centre in Bioethics, Université libre de Bruxelles, member of the Belgium National Consultative Committee of Bioethics

Human rights challenges


Prof. Dominique Thouvenin (France), Chair “Health Law and Ethics” Research Center “Law, Science and Technology,” Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne


13.00 – 14.30 LUNCH BREAK



(Rapporteur: Mr Hugh Whittall, United Kingdom ; Mr Gérard Lommel, Bureau of T-PD)

Chairs: Prof. Damir Marjanović (Bosnia and Herzegovina), University of Sarajevo

Prof. Mariachiara Tallacchini (Italy), Università Cattolica SC

Introductory presentation: what is at stake?


Dr Péter Kimpián (Hungary), Head of International Affairs and Public Relations Department, Hungarian Authority for Data Protection and Freedom of Information

Ethical and societal perspectives


Prof. Dr. Peter Dabrock (Germany), Chair of Systematic Theology (Ethics) at the Department of Theology, University Erlangen-Nuremberg, Member of the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies (EGE)

Human rights challenges


Prof. Yann Joly (Canada), Research Director, Centre of Genomics and Policy, McGill University, Montreal


16.00 – 16.30 BREAK

16.30 – 18.00 SESSION 4 – EQUITY OF ACCESS (Rapporteur: Prof. Laura Palazzani, Italy)

Chairs: Ms Liliane Maury Pasquier (Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe), Chair of the Sub-Committee on Public Health of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE)

Prof. Pavel Tishchenko (Russian Federation), Russian Academy of sciences

Introductory presentation: what is at stake?


Prof. Jan Helge Solbakk (Norway) Institute of Health and Society, Centre for Medical Ethics, Faculty of medicine, Oslo

Ethical and societal perspectives


Prof. Stefano Semplici, Chair of the International Bioethics Committee of UNESCO

Human rights challenges


Prof. Yolanda Maria Gomez Sanchez (Spain), Professor of Constitutional Law National University for distance learning, Madrid


18.00 End of Day 1


5 MAY 2015

9.00 – 10.30 SESSION 5 – GOVERNANCE (Rapporteur: Dr André Gazsó, Institute of Technology Assessment, Austrian Academy of Sciences, Austria)

Chairs: Prof. Stefano Semplici, Chair of the International Bioethics Committee of UNESCO

Prof. Beatrice Ioan, Vice Chair of DH-BIO

 Introductory presentation:


Prof. Sheila Jasanoff (USA), Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University

 Are existing governance systems challenged by emerging technologies and their convergence?


Prof. Herman Nys (Belgium), Director of the Centre for Biomedical Ethics and Law, Leuven University, Member of the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies

 How and who can respond: priority actions and possible models?


Prof. Sheila Jasanoff (USA) and Prof. Herman Nys (Belgium)


10.30 – 11.30 ROUND TABLE: Priority human rights challenges arising from emerging technologies

Participants: Prof. Dr. Peter Dabrock (Germany), Prof. Yolanda Maria Gomez Sanchez (Spain), Prof. Sheila Jasanoff (USA), Prof. Yann Joly (Canada), Prof. Matthias Kaiser (Norway), Dr Péter Kimpián (Hungary), Prof. Jean-Noël Missa (Belgium), Prof. Herman Nys (Belgium), Prof. Stefano Semplici (Unesco), Prof. Jan Helge Solbakk (Norway), Dr Dirk Stemerding (Netherlands), Prof. Roger Strand (Norway), Prof. Dominique Thouvenin (France), Dr Rinie van Est (Netherlands)

Moderator: Dr Doris Wolfslehner (Austria), member of the DH-BIO Bureau

11-30 – 12.00 BREAK

12.00 – 13.00 SESSION 6 – CONCLUSIONS

Chairs: Dr Mark Bale, Chair of DH-BIO

Ms Brigitte Konz (Luxembourg), Vice-Chair of the CDDH

 Joint presentation by the rapporteurs of the sessions



– M. Jean-Yves Le Déaut (Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe), General Rapporteur on science and technology impact assessment of the Committee on Culture, Science, Education and Media of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE)

Dr Mark Bale, Chair of the DH-BIO

13.00 End of the conference