Markus Christen

Difficult to Pigeonhole

Ethicist Markus Christen believes there must be a societal debate about digitalization.

By Stefan Stöcklin; translated by Philip Isler

Markus Christen has not one, but four working spaces: One in the Institute of Biomedical Ethics and History of Medicine (IBME) and another at the current head office of the Digital Society Initiative (DSI). He also regularly works in the dining car of the Intercity train operating between Zurich and Biel, where the ethicist lives with his family – and he has another office in his home. On three or four days each week, he travels to Zurich and uses the commute to work on his numerous projects. “I like getting work done on the move and enjoy working in the train,” says the Biel native, with his calm and relaxed demeanor.

His various offices already hint at where Christen’s academic interests lie: Digitalization and ethical questions. Christen meets us at the head office of the DSI, on the first floor of an old villa on Rämistrasse, where he shares an office with the other DSI employees. Christen describes himself as an academic who researches at the intersection of the natural sciences and the humanities. His interest in both natural sciences and philosophical questions dates back to his school days, and when he enrolled at the University of Bern in 1989, he registered for classes in philosophy on the one hand and mathematics, physics and biology on the other.

From journalism to academia

Markus Christen has stayed true to this combination of humanities and natural sciences, with each side at times receiving more attention than the other. He has since obtained his habilitation in the field of bioethics and technology. The research group he heads up at the IBME is called the Neuro-Ethics-Technology Research Group. “Academically speaking, I’m difficult to pigeonhole,” admits Christen, smiling wryly.

The 49-year-old’s extraordinary career has indeed been anything but uniform. After his studies, he first ventured into journalism and media, where as a science journalist for various media outlets and editor at the Bieler Tagblatt, he learned how to convey complex information in an understandable way. “I wanted to communicate scientific topics to a wide audience,” says Christen. As a project manager in a PR firm in Bern, he then moved into the strategic planning of election campaigns and projects. During this time, he founded the philosophy studio Pantaris together with colleagues and set up the Bieler Philosophietage, a philosophy festival that is still held to this day.

However, his interest in science ultimately prevailed, and Christen left the world of journalism to devote his time and efforts to academia. After the turn of the millennium, he started working on his doctoral thesis at ETH Zurich in the field of neuroinformatics. Again, this work had a natural sciences element, with a focus on neural information processing, as well as a historical or humanities side that examined the origins of the brain-computer analogy. Following his dissertation, Christen increasingly turned his attention to the ethical and moral questions raised by new methods of medical technology, which he tackled using an empirical approach. One of the procedures he looked into was deep brain stimulation (DBS), where electrodes are implanted into the brain to treat different symptoms with electrical impulses. As experiences by patients revealed, DBS can result in changes in personality, which Christen investigated in his project.

“Digitalization isn’t primarily a technological issue, but a societal one, and has far-reaching ethical and moral implications,” says the ethics specialist. Nowhere does this become more apparent than when it comes to autonomous weapons systems, which in the future might end up deciding themselves whether or not to kill. Can people delegate the moral responsibility of deciding who lives and who doesn’t to technological systems that they themselves created? These types of questions also arise when it comes to robots, albeit with less drastic consequences. “It’s time we had a debate about the interactions between humans and autonomous technology,” urges Christen.

Two souls

Questions of digitalization and ethics – these are what drives the natural scientist. As head of the research group at the IBME, Christen oversees a string of research projects together with his team. One, for example, focuses on the development of moral video games (Serious Moral Games), for which he’s cooperating with Carmen Tanner and other specialists. In these games, the players practice moral behavior based on practical problems. Two learning games aimed at teaching ethical behavior to medical students and business leaders are currently in the works.

The self-professed technology ethicist exudes a calm and reflective attitude as he talks about his projects. Wearing jeans and a polo shirt, Christen cares little for outward appearances and isn’t concerned with showing off his intellectual prowess. It seems that, as the Managing Director of the DSI, which tackles the interdisciplinary, societal questions of digitalization, he’s found his perfect fit: The two souls dwelling in his breast are the same two poles of the DSI.