Archive for the ‘ethics’ Category

Prosthetic Technology and Human Enhancement: Benefits, Concerns and Regulatory Schemes (Part One)

May 2, 2013 5 comments

This IEET exclusive explores the history, current use, and future potential of prosthetic devices and implants. It also addresses benefits and concerns that run directly to the individual. This is Part One of what will be a three-part series.

Just a short note on publishing timeframes – I’m in the process of moving and will soon be studying for the bar, so it might be a bit sporadic. I’ll do my best to make the transition as painless as possible, however.

Prosthetic Technology Presentation

March 4, 2013 1 comment

This is a presentation I gave at the William S. Boyd School of Law in preparation for the Southern Association for the History of Medicine and Science conference in Charleston, South Carolina.

It covers the history of prosthetic devices, current prosthetics, future trends, and ethical questions.



Why Lance Armstrong’s Doping Doesn’t Matter

January 19, 2013 3 comments

lance armstrongManny Ramirez. Mark McGwire. Barry Bonds. Baseball is no stranger to superstars using steroids. Sprinter Ben Johnson was disqualified from an Olympic victory decades ago. More likely than not, every sport has players who use ‘performance enhancing drugs’ – it’s just that the player’s performance is not generally enhanced to superstar status. Now Lance Armstrong has admitted to doping, and once again the world is shocked.

For me, the most unfortunate part of this whole story is that Armstrong lied to so many people for so long about doping. He sued people who ‘lied’ about his doping. He put out press statement after press statement about how he was a clean athlete. He threatened teammates and others. It’s the hypocrisy that bothers me, really. I have the same sort of scorn for politicians who blather on about family values and the sanctity of marriage after cheating on their spouse with a gay prostitute the night before. It’s not the sex that bothers me, it’s the lying.

For the moment, let’s put that aside. Armstrong broke the rules. Somewhere in the professional cycling handbook there’s a ‘no doping’ clause, just as there is in most other sports handbooks. As The Verge points out, doping can mean anything from manipulating blood through transfusions and hormones to taking performance enhancing drugs. My contention is this: A ‘no doping’ clause is a terrible rule. Not just because it’s easily circumvented by creating new drugs that aren’t on the official ‘banned’ list, and not just because it encourages athletes who want to cheat to find clever ways to evade the tests. It’s not even terrible because the extent of doping’s impact isn’t very clear. Does anyone really question whether McGwire, Bonds, Johnson, or Armstrong were excellent athletes who would have had great success even if they hadn’t been doping? It’s quite likely that all these athletes would have been very good – perhaps even great – but doping made them better. Maybe just slightly, but it was enough. The rule is stupid, because ‘just slightly’ is about to become greatly.

China National Anti-Doping Centre Opens For 2008 Beijing Olympics

Whenever I make this contention, people inevitably come back with something along the lines of a fairness argument. It’s not fair to allow doping because these dopers are cheating. They have an unfair advantage. It’s not natural, etc. Yes, dopers are cheaters. If no one was doping, there would be no cheaters. This is clearly the goal of the expensive and invasive testing processes designed to detect dopers and the suspensions and revocations of awards after dopers are caught. It’s a system designed to detect and then punish, with the goal of scaring would-be dopers straight and eliminating cheaters. You know what else eliminates cheaters without the expense, invasive tests, and asterisks next to awards or revocation of medals? Allowing doping. If it’s not against the rules, then there are no cheaters. Instead of all the extraordinary measures taken to combat doping, sports authorities could get rid of cheaters entirely (of the doping variety, anyway) by deleting a couple of paragraphs.

Allowing doping largely takes care of the unfair advantage argument as well. If it’s neither secretive nor banned, then anyone who wants to enhance their performance is free to do so. It might be an advantage, but it’s no longer unfair. But I suspect that people who use the unfair advantage argument generally mean the third thing: That it’s not natural. This, I think, is the worst argument of all.

Can we just get rid of the idea that because something is ‘natural’ that it’s better? That argument is already a fallacy for cripes sake. But it’s not just that the argument is technically wrong – it’s just plain stupid. If an athlete gets sick, we don’t get bent out of shape about them taking antibiotics or Nyquil. Hell, we don’t even get mad if they’re taking steroids as part of a recovery process. Humankind’s distinguishing characteristic is arguably our ability to use tools to improve our condition. We nearly all use drugs when we’re sick. Many of us will huff steroids to get rid of a simple allergy. Is it really that unbelievable that an athlete being paid millions of dollars to do well wants to use a tool to help them become better? Why do we all of a sudden get bent out of shape about their using an unnatural substance to run better when we were fine with that athlete using the same substance to recover from a torn ACL a year prior?

It comes back to the unfair advantage argument. These athletes aren’t ‘pure humans’ or something like this, and so by taking a substance to get better it’s ruining the core of the sport. Consider this argument in two different lights.

Super Bowl XLVIThe first light is something like: This athlete wouldn’t naturally be this good, so it harms the sport to allow her to take a performance enhancing substance to get better. Let’s take American football as an example. Ryan Fitzpatrick (starting quarterback for the Buffalo Bills) is not as good as Tom Brady (starting quarterback of the New England Patriots). As far as I know, neither of these athletes are illegal dopers, though I suspect they probably use legal substances to get rid of the aches and pains of, say, getting sacked by Brian Urlacher. As far as I know, both QBs put in a ton of work, are smart guys, and are dedicated to their jobs. That is, it isn’t the case that Tom Brady is more motivated than Ryan Fitzpatrick. Certainly the surrounding team helps Tom look better than Ryan, but if we stripped that away and just looked at their statistics in running, passing accuracy and passing distance, I think we’d find that Tom is perhaps a little quicker, a little more accurate, and has a little more arm than Ryan.

Tom, it seems, has slightly better genes than Ryan; at least for the purposes of throwing a football while avoiding large guys trying to tackle him. They’ve both worked hard, put in the effort, but Tom just has a higher capability ceiling than Ryan. It’s how he was born, and that’s fine because it’s natural. But is it really? Isn’t this really the ultimate unfair advantage? There’s nothing about Tom’s greater ability that ‘ruins the game of football’ like we might argue were the case if we found out he’d been doping. In fact, if Ryan started doping and became as good as Tom and then got caught, we’d probably say that it was Ryan who was ruining the game of football by doping, even though he only improved to the same level as Tom. Tom, through random chance, is better at football than Ryan, but Ryan is the bad guy if he uses a tool to get to the same level as Tom. What kind of sense does that make?

The second light to the natural-is-better statement has already been hinted at. Tom Brady, being a great quarterback, doesn’t ruin the game of football. Michael Phelps didn’t ruin swimming because he was perhaps the best swimmer who ever existed. Naturally great athletes don’t ruin their sport, no matter how good they are. Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, and Lance Armstrong didn’t ruin their sports by being great either. When we were unaware of the fact they were doping, they provided a spark to their sport like we hadn’t seen before. These folks were legends because they were good, and arguably revitalized their sport. I’d even argue that most people wouldn’t even care about cycling (to the extent that anyone cares about cycling, anyway) if it weren’t for this Lance Armstrong guy who won a ton of titles. A quarterback who comes in and is better than Tom also isn’t going to ruin the game of football. Great athletes make for great sports, and doping is arguably a way to make great athletes better. Great athletes are the reason we watch the NFL instead of high school football games.

That is exactly why we ought to allow doping. If it’s legal, if it’s not an unfair advantage, and if we get rid of this silly and fallacious notion that natural is better we will have better athletes. Maybe the National Football League, Major League Baseball, and professional cycling don’t want to allow dopers into their leagues. That’s fine. Create a new league where it’s legal.

geneticengineeringWe are approaching a time where steroid doping is going to look like drinking a cup of coffee in the morning – maybe it provides some advantage, but it’s miniscule. The Daily Mail ran a story a few months ago about amazing Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen and the (extremely unlikely, imo) possibility that she was genetically enhanced. Past that claim, they did a pretty good job of explaining what genetic enhancement could look like. Athletes whose blood carried more oxygen, who are stronger, faster, and have more endurance. Athletes with quicker reflexes and more durable ligaments and bones.  In short, professional athletes doing what they do, but better.

Outside of sports, some people are talking about modifying soldiers to give them superior capabilities. A decade ago, DARPA was looking into the possibility of modifying soldiers “to reduce their susceptibility to stress, sleep deprivation, fatigue, pain and blood loss while enhancing their memory and learning.” DARPA’s “Metabolic Dominance” program was covered by Wired nine years ago – and consider that we were allowed to know about that program. Generally, human enhancement is catching on and becoming more acceptable:

For its part, the National Intelligence Council expects some resistance to biomods. “Moral and ethical challenges to human augmentation are inevitable,” the Council advised. Americans, especially, tend to have deep reservations about changing people’s biology, [Georgetown researcher Andrew] Herr points out. That doesn’t mean they won’t do it. He points out increasing acceptance of cognitive-enhancing drugs among American college students. “Seventy to 80 percent of upperclassman have at least once taken these drugs illegally to get better grades,” he says. “If the younger generation in our country is more comfortable with this, then that would make the use of these kinds of things in society, and by extension the military, very different.” – Wired

Soon, doping isn’t going to mean taking a shot of steroids or getting a blood transfusion, but rewriting our DNA and making it more efficient. As soon as it’s feasible a military, somewhere, is going to embrace it. If genetic modification is acceptable for our military, then it will become acceptable elsewhere too. For instance, what happens the first time a soldier leaves the service and, say, wants to play football again like they did in college? Will the NFL let him in?

If the NFL does let this player in, they’re likely to be much better than other players – that is, after all, the point of the modification. And this athlete will be better in a way that the current doping scandals don’t even begin to approach. It might be like dropping Tom Brady into a high school football match.

That brings us to the second point. If the NFL refuses to allow the player, then surely someone will start another league. This league will be better (more exciting, faster, etc.) than the NFL to the same extent as the NFL is better than high school games. There will be no cheating as far as modifications go because modification will be specifically allowed. The advantage won’t be unfair, and there won’t be some suggestion that the athletes ought to be natural in the sense we mean now.

In less than a decade, someone will take Lance Armstrong’s place. There will be another great cyclist, because sports never stop just because one athlete got busted. Maybe this athlete will be a ‘natural’ and surpass Lance’s abilities because the athlete was lucky enough to have excellent genes. Maybe the athlete will be modified to an extent Lance never imagined. Either way, the sport will go on. Before long, enhanced athletes will become the norm, even if we still have quaint throwback leagues for unenhanced humans. Modification and doping makes sports better, and that is why Lance Armstrong’s doping doesn’t matter.

Categories: ethics, genetics, transhumanism

GMOs: The Future Of Food

January 6, 2013 4 comments

pharmcornFor several months now, I’ve wanted to put together a post talking about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), and particularly in the context of food. I’ve had several debates with my friends – I tend toward the pro-GMO camp and several of my friends are anti-GMO. I maintained that if they simply looked at the science, reviewed the research, and avoided sources with an agenda that often post incorrect information that they would come around to my way of thinking.

It turns out, someone else just did that job for me.

Big-time environmental advocate Mark Lynas has fought GMOs for nearly two decades. He helped to coin the “Franken-whatever” phrase, and has generally contributed to public hysteria and governmental regulation of GMOs, particularly across Europe. On Thursday, at the Oxford Farmer’s Conference, Lynas recanted. Anyone interested in GMOs should watch the entirety of his speech, but I’ll highlight a few important bits after the video.

“[W]hat happened between 1995 and now that made me not only change my mind but come here and admit it? Well, the answer is fairly simple: I discovered science, and in the process I hope I became a better environmentalist.”

This follows my general argument that when people look at the hard data, they understand that most fears about GMOs are unfounded. That someone so ardently opposed to GMOs could revise his opinion, publically no less, is extremely rare and worthy of praise.

“When I first heard about Monsanto’s GM soya I knew exactly what I thought. Here was a big American corporation with a nasty track record, putting something new and experimental into our food without telling us. Mixing genes between species seemed to be about as unnatural as you can get – here was humankind acquiring too much technological power; something was bound to go horribly wrong. These genes would spread like some kind of living pollution. It was the stuff of nightmares.”

Often, when I ask why people dislike GMOs, their reaction comes down to a dislike of Monsanto. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a huge fan of Monsanto either, though I find they’re sometimes demonized more than they ought to be. The Supreme Court is expected to hear a case about some of their practices during the upcoming term.

But creating hysteria about GMOs because one of the major companies that makes them is distasteful is like creating a hysteria about computers because one doesn’t like Microsoft. The technology is separate from the people that implement it. If someone wants to argue that the business model of Monsanto is unethical or harmful that’s an argument I can get behind (or at least entertain.) But to suggest that the technology itself is bad, even if Monsanto is a sort of corporate demon, is ludicrous.

How Some View Monsanto

How Some View Monsanto

“So I did some reading. And I discovered that one by one my cherished beliefs about GM turned out to be little more than green urban myths. I’d assumed that it would increase the use of chemicals. It turned out that pest-resistant cotton and maize needed less insecticide. I’d assumed that GM benefited only the big companies. It turned out that billions of dollars of benefits were accruing to farmers needing fewer inputs. I’d assumed that Terminator Technology was robbing farmers of the right to save seed. It turned out that hybrids did that long ago, and that Terminator never happened. I’d assumed that no-one wanted GM. Actually what happened was that Bt cotton was pirated into India and roundup ready soya into Brazil because farmers were so eager to use them. I’d assumed that GM was dangerous. It turned out that it was safer and more precise than conventional breeding using mutagenesis for example; GM just moves a couple of genes, whereas conventional breeding mucks about with the entire genome in a trial and error way. But what about mixing genes between unrelated species? The fish and the tomato? Turns out viruses do that all the time, as do plants and insects and even us – it’s called gene flow.”

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. Lynas moved away from the propaganda, did some research, and came to conclusions backed by evidence instead of fear.

Lynas goes on at some length about how GMOs can help mitigate climate change, help feed billions of people, and generally make life a little better for all of us (and a lot better for some of us.)

“There is a depressing irony here that the anti-biotech campaigners complain about GM crops only being marketed by big corporations when this is a situation they have done more than anyone to help bring about.”

Ironic is exactly the right word to use here. The trouble with GMOs is that it can be a dangerous technology. Part of me hopes that so many of these regulations will be loosened and GMO technology can become essentially open source. So much of my distaste for Monsanto comes down to the patent system and approval process. But because there are strong dissenters to the technology who require stringent regulations the R&D and approval processes are very costly. That means that only large corporations can afford to research the technology. And that, in turn, means that Monsanto remains the biggest game in town because smaller, perhaps more ethical, businesses can’t afford to play.

“In the EU the system is at a standstill, and many GM crops have been waiting a decade or more for approval but are permanently held up by the twisted domestic politics of anti-biotech countries like France and Austria. Around the whole world the regulatory delay has increased to more than 5 and a half years now, from 3.7 years back in 2002. The bureaucratic burden is getting worse.”

Take, for example, a GMO salmon that, after 17 years in the approval process and millions upon millions of dollars spent to get it approved, has finally been approved after the FDA conceded that it “posed no major health or environmental risks” and that “ [the FDA] could not find any valid scientific reasons to ban the production of GM Atlantic salmon engineered with extra genes from two other fish species.”


Lynas says, “If you look at the situation without prejudice, much of the debate, both in terms of anti-biotech and organic, is simply based on the naturalistic fallacy – the belief that natural is good, and artificial is bad. This is a fallacy because there are plenty of entirely natural poisons and ways to die, as the relatives of those who died from E.-coli poisoning would tell you. For organic, the naturalistic fallacy is elevated into the central guiding principle for an entire movement. This is irrational and we owe it to the Earth and to our children to do better.”

Indeed we do.

Just a few examples of the potential benefits of GMO technology (in food alone – I will post a separate article about GMOs in other contexts another time):

Lab grown meat that could provide nutrition to millions of people, without the detrimental impact to the Earth caused by traditional cattle and chicken farms and without the ethical problems of killing animals for food.

Modified tomatoes that can help prevent heart disease.

Modified corn that could help treat a rare disease.

Lynas speaks about several other current uses of GMO food to help feed people or cure disease, and again, I cannot recommend strongly enough that you listen to the entire speech. GMO food, time and again, has proven safe, effective, and offers benefits far beyond what traditional farming techniques offer. The best part: We’re just getting started.

As an aside: There is a separate debate about whether GM food ought to be labeled. For the record, I think that it should. People certainly have a right to know what sort of food they’re purchasing and consuming. Perhaps equally importantly, people ought to be able to see how many of the foods they already eat are genetically modified. This, I think, will dissipate some of the fear about GM food. It would, as a side benefit, allow me to knowingly support foods that are genetically modified.

Musings On Robot Sex Dolls and Companions

May 13, 2012 11 comments

The currents of the internet work in odd ways; this past week the theme seems to be robot sex. Since I have had it on the brain, I figure I will contribute to the trendiness and throw my own 2c in. (Just as a note, I will indicate any link that is explicitly Not Safe For Work).  I am going to blur the line a bit between just discussing robot sex and discussing robot companionship, a somewhat more involved relationship than the purely physical.

It seems to me there are essentially three main questions when it comes to human-robot sex. First, can we build a machine that anyone would want to have sex with? Second, how “intelligent” should that machine be? Third, is this just a fetish for weirdoes?

Technical Feasibility:

Not only can we build robots that people want to have sex with; we already have.

Certainly, there are all manner of devices people use for sexual pleasure, but I want to focus on machines more sophisticated than your average vibrator.

The aptly titled (NSFW) is a pornographic site founded in 2000 that features videos and pictures of women having sex with robots that are not particularly technically advanced, and certainly not on the level of a sophisticated android sex-bot. Think battle bots for the bedroom. Despite the lack of sophistication, these are industrial pieces of hardware. For the home user, somewhat tamed versions of machines built for pleasure are available from mainstream websites like this “Love Glider Sex Machine” from (NSFW). (NSFW) has a number of both male and female android dolls for purchase. Although the website is not well constructed, this page (NSFW) seems to show various servos, circuit boards, and otherwise fairly advanced robotics working together to create a somewhat lifelike robot. Less sophisticated, but perhaps more lifelike, are Real Dolls (NSFW), in production since 1996. Real Dolls are as close as I have seen to human-looking sex bots, but are still a long way from indistinguishable from human.

The most realistic robot that I have yet seen (though it is not designed specifically for sex) is Geminoid F from Osaka University’s Professor Hiroshi Ishigurou. This robot can smile, talk, move, and appears very lifelike. According to this video, she even has “basic emotions and behaviors” programmed in. The biggest problems that I can see from the demonstration videos are that (1) the robot might be firmly entrenched in the “uncanny valley” (2) her movements are still a little jerky, and (3) her software is highly advanced, but hardly lifelike.

The uncanny valley is a hypothesis that argues that as robots become more human-like a human observer’s emotional response becomes more positive and empathetic. However, at some point, the robot is –too- lifelike, and a feeling of revulsion quickly replaces the positive and empathetic emotional response. If the robot becomes yet more lifelike, to the point of being indistinguishable from a human, the human observer’s emotional response will again become positive and empathic. Thus, to have a sex bot that anyone would actually want to have sex with, the robot is going to have to be on one side or the other of the uncanny valley; either not particularly lifelike, or extremely lifelike. For a robot that is expected to be more than a sex toy (say, for someone that a human might want to be partnered with) the robot would have to be extremely advanced and nearly indistinguishable from a human being.

Jerky movements can be compensated for by ever-better servos and other methods of movement. Popular Science, for instance, recently reported on Nobuhiro Takahashi and the University of Electro-Communications’ new robotic butt that responds to “slaps, caresses, and finger pokes.”

The video is a little creepy, but shows the sort of fine ‘muscle’ movement that Geminoid F lacks; movement that could be very useful in other parts of the robot as well.

ExtremeTech posted an article about Kissenger, a telepresence robot designed to allow two humans to kiss across great distances through a robot. Although this is hardly more advanced than previous robots, it does suggest that humans are willing to at least attempt to transmit an emotional connection through a robot. In addition, as ET points out, how much of a stretch is it from kissing a robot with another human on the other side to kissing a robot controlled by an A.I.?

This ScienceDaily article highlights synthetic skin that could, one day, allow a robot to feel. Even if we assume that there is no qualia (roughly: experiential consciousness) behind a robot feeling, all the data streams involved in transmitting some kind of feeling could be very useful for triggering micro-movements in various parts of the skin, perhaps even including subtle changes like goose bumps, etc.

Technically, I think we are about there. Some more materials development (in particular a temperature regulation system and a lubrication system would be two huge upgrades that I have not seen) some finer muscle control, and some more realistic design and robots might just climb out of the uncanny valley. However, what about the software side of the robot?

A.I. and Sex-Bots:

The next question is how much artificial intelligence a robot companion ought to have.

On one end of the scale, we have Real Dolls – essentially human-looking mannequins without any sort of robotics or artificial intelligence. These sorts of sex-bots are fine as far as they go for purely physical entertainment, but most people probably will not develop any emotional connection to their toys (especially if they hang their Real Doll by the “removable neck bolt” as their FAQ suggests.)

Towards the middle of the scale, and likely right at the edge of our current capability, we have Geminoid F; a robot with basic emotional scales programmed in that can spontaneously create new reactions to situations. The jerky physical movement is mimicked by the jerky emotional reactions; they are broadly appropriate, but are not exactly finely tuned enough to seem human.

Ideally, it seems like the perfect robot companion ought to have emotions that at least mimic human emotions very well; the ability to smile, wink, and bite their lip at just the right time and have something that at least seems plausibly like a twinkle in their eye. Perhaps complex human-based personality profiles could be uploaded that allow the robot to seem very much like a human being, albeit with customizable settings for each individual user to account for differing tastes. Maybe the robot could exhibit this personality outside of the bedroom as well; transforming a sex robot into something more like a personal companion or even a partner.

However, it seems important to limit both sex robots and companion robots to non-conscious levels of intelligence. Most importantly, because I think that cognitive criteria are the defining hallmarks of a “person,” and that a robot with actual consciousness ought to be considered a person. If we think it is wrong to keep people for sex toys (and we certainly do) then I cannot see the same behavior being justifiable for conscious robots.

However, even outside of the moral personhood angle, a conscious robot would have something like free will, or at least clearly articulable preferences. If the goal of a sex-robot or companion robot is to have the ideal partner, then we certainly don’t want our robot telling us ‘no’ or ‘I’m not in the mood’ (unless we program that in for some sort of more realistic behavior.) We want to be able to program in our individual desires and preferences which make the robot ideal for each of us, and a robot with free will would presumably be overwriting our preferences with their own fairly often. A robot with true artificial intelligence would not have many advantages over a human partner.

In short, much like the physical problem of the uncanny valley, we want a robot intelligent enough to seem human-like without actually being conscious enough to be a person.

Who Would Want A Sex Robot?

We can dispense with the obvious fairly quickly; probably people with intimacy issues, various kinks and fetishes, and those who just want sex without everything else that often comes with it would be first in line for a very realistic sex-bot. ExtremeTech recently wrote an article about robot prostitutes that argues that robots could take over the prostitution industry (wouldn’t a sex-bot be cheaper over the long run, after all?) in addition to lessening human trafficking, pedophilia, and other sex crimes.

I think, however, a compelling case can be made that more than just the socially awkward and sexually deviant (in the clinical sense) would appreciate a sex-robot. Dick Pelletier recently wrote a piece for IEET where he highlights a number of authors who have argued just that, including tech luminary Ray Kurzweil: “Author Ray Kurzweil says tomorrow’s ‘droids could quickly learn to flesh out our positive feelings, providing an addictive allure almost impossible for us to resist.” Indeed, with ruthless, cunning efficiency a robot with sophisticated enough software could read various biometric signals that humans give off, allowing him or her to customize their personality to the preferences of their human owners that the owner may not even know that they have. Moreover, like any good device, the robot would presumably become more accurate over time, and change as their owner does. This sort of adaptive learning is an ingenious solution to forcing the operator to think of all of their own preferences and program them into their robot companion; something humans have a difficult enough time expressing to each other.

The allure of the perfect seducer / seductress is vast, and not to be underestimated. No matter how fabulous your human partner is, there is bound to be –something- about him or her that is not 100% ideal. Maybe they snore. Maybe they like to cut you off while you are talking. Maybe they just forget to put the toilet seat down. Whatever it is, trivial or serious, there is some way (and, likely, a number of ways) that they are not ideal. Of course, humans overlook these qualities in other humans all the time during relationships; coping with each other’s idiosyncrasies and quirks (which might even become endearing after a while) is largely what human relationships are about, and provide an extra level of intimacy in a relationship. Nevertheless, even if your human partner –is- wonderful and you cannot think of a single thing you would change about them, they are still only one personality.

An interesting implication of robot-companions is that there is little reason why multiple personalities could not be installed within one physical frame, and those personalities could be changeable at will. Maybe you want a sultry professional for an office meeting, a wild party girl for a Halloween party, a tomboy for a Super Bowl party and a quiet intellectual for a lazy Sunday afternoon. Perhaps you want a nice gentleman for dinner, a jock for the pool, and a real alpha-male for bed later. A robot companion can switch effortlessly into different personalities, each tailored to your specific desires. These personalities could even be ported into different physical frames for those who desire a differing physical appearance every now and again.

Beyond the physical and personality advantages, there could be greater emotional security from a companion bot as well. From Dick’s IEET article: “A robot partner would be the perfect mate, never showing boredom or being inattentive, Levy says. You will always be the focus and centerpiece of their existence and you never need worry about their being unfaithful or going astray, because loyalty and being faithful are embedded in their programming.” With a divorce rate hovering somewhere around 50% in the United States, human relationships seem to be the emotional equivalent of a coin flip (and subsequent relationships fare even worse.) Never mind the cost of alimony and child support.

In short, I think that with advanced enough A.I. (but not too advanced, per the above) sex or companion robots could very well become the ideal mates for humans. Human-robot relationships could be purely sexual, or they could become more like true companions. Either way, such human-robot interactions do not necessarily mean the end of human-human interactions, or inevitable extinction for lack of reproduction. There are, after all, plenty of children to adopt, and there is little reason to think that the technology involved in creating children will fail to advance as rapidly as other technologies.

We are still a long way from this sort of interaction, but the upsides seem considerable.

Why Bad Arguments Suck

February 8, 2012 2 comments

Nothing puts the rapid pace of technological change in perspective like seeing the ridiculous pile of links that I want to talk about stored in my draft email. No matter how much I write, it seems, there is always so much more to say. Often, I want to write about things that will help me share as many links as possible in a post, but writing that way either forces me to take a pass on weighty topics that require saying a little more, create a post that covers a hodgepodge of topics, or simply resign myself to sharing just a link or two so that I can say everything that needs to be said. Today is going to be one of those latter types of posts because I want to talk about intellectual honesty for a minute.

Let’s start with an article from Rebecca Taylor at Lifenews seems to focus on pro-life issues which, given my views about technology, probably doesn’t seem like the first blog I’d read. But I do like to see what the people who think differently than I do are saying, and so whenever lifenews pops up on my ‘transhumanism’ Google feed I head over to see what’s going on. In this case, Dr. Taylor is arguing that transhumanism, coupled with Roe v. Wade, is leading to a dystopia of eugenics and genetic engineering. In this, I think, Dr. Taylor is potentially half right. Unfortunately, Dr. Taylor either doesn’t understand the law she cites, or else is deliberately misrepresenting it to make a rhetorical point. For instance, she briefly mentions Roe v. Wade and then asserts that the case lead to the unborn having “no legal protection.” Because the unborn have no legal protection, she argues, immoral scientists can do what they want with them.

The first problem with Dr. Taylor’s argument is that it’s just wrong legally. First, Roe v. Wade hardly stripped all legal protection for the unborn; fetuses continued to be protected after the first trimester, and abortion could still be outlawed in the third trimester. Assuming Roe had stripped those protections, however, they would have been replaced in Casey v. Planned Parenthood, the more recent abortion case that doesn’t pack the same rhetorical appeal. There, the Supreme Court decided that states could ban abortion past the point of viability, and institute processes that women must go through to undergo an abortion even prior to viability so long as the processes are not “unduly burdensome.” Outside of the abortion context, the unborn continue to enjoy widespread protection in criminal and tort contexts.

Dr. Taylor goes on argue that Roe lead to an “unregulated” market for fertility treatments; a term she equates with cloning and genetic enhancement. But a quick glance at US law shows that this simply isn’t so. Aside from state laws that regulate cloning, the FDA and other administrative agencies regulate many of the processes involved with human cloning and the FDA has publically stated that they will not allow research projects involving human cloning.

Putting aside the legal problems with Dr. Taylor’s argument, she goes on to list a parade of horribles stemming from this supposed lack of legal protection. But that argument, too, is based on a lot of outdated science. Mainly she seems concerned that researchers are using fetal stem cells, though she strongly implies that fetuses are aborted to supply these cells, instead of recognizing that stem cells from fetuses already aborted for other reasons are then used for medical research. Dr. Taylor seems to overlook the fact that we often use cadavers for medical research, or else distinguishes using parts of aborted fetuses from using parts of cadavers without explanation. Either way, using parts of our dead to help the living is a well-established and generally uncontroversial matter; our entire organ transplant system is based around just that idea.

Finally, Dr. Taylor spins into a diatribe about transhumanists, though she doesn’t really say much about why transhumanism is bad except that people might (gasp!) lop off their own limb to replace it with something better and that the divide between the haves and the have nots might widen (an issues, it’s worth mentioning, that transhumanists themselves are concerned about.)

It’s easy to argue against transhumanism when you’re misquoting law, using outdated science, and not bothering to connect ideas with logic. Indeed, many of the experts Dr. Taylor cites to say that the policies she’s decrying are the natural extension of current scientific and ethical policies.

I want to be clear about why I’m calling out this article. It’s not that I dislike Dr. Taylor, or disagree with everything she says even, but I abhor bad arguments. I don’t expect blog posts to look like academic articles (I’d be in trouble if that was the case) but I don’t think accurate is too high a bar to expect. It’s not just that articles like Dr. Taylor’s are wrong, it’s that they’re wrong and likely to influence public opinion with bad facts. And that, at the heart of it, is the problem. It’s also why, should I misrepresent something, I want people to correct me. We can have debates about human cloning, genetic engineering, and the divide between the haves and the have nots without resorting to bad law and bad facts. The ethical issues surrounding transhumanism are difficult enough to debate without also having to defuse straw man arguments. To make real progress in these ethical debates we have to remain intellectually honest.

An excellent example of a well written article exploring a transhumanist ethical problem is this article by Carolyn Abraham at The Globe and Mail. While I highly recommend reading the whole article for a serious debate about the merits of human cloning and genetic engineering, what I want to point out here is that the article is accurate, balanced, and presents both sides of the argument. I really look forward to well-reasoned arguments from people not as optimistic about technology as I am because I realize the world isn’t so black and white that this technology is obviously great or terrible. Reasonable minds could disagree with the conclusion (not made by the article) that the technology is good or bad, but they would be disagreeing based on accurate information. That’s the sort of debate we need, and the only thing that will help us come to any sort of conclusion about how to proceed in the future.

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Sunday Edition: Abundance, Computing, Animal Communication, and Ethics

January 8, 2012 31 comments

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. – Arthur C. Clark, scientist and writer.

With that in mind, let’s talk about magic for a minute. Not so long ago (and in some circles still today) people used to talk about alchemy; turning lead into gold was the usual desire. Without knowledge of elements, atoms, and other basic chemistry, the idea was that one substance could be transmuted into another using the philosopher’s stone which, despite its name, was not always a stone but sometimes an elixir or other substance.

Today, we don’t talk about philosopher’s stones, and rarely talk about turning lead into gold. We could plate lead with gold, of course, but that’s not the same. In theory, one could turn lead into gold by reconfiguring the atoms of lead (82 protons and 82 electrons in six fields, with 126 neutrons in the middle) into atoms of gold (79 protons and 79 electrons in six fields, with 118 neutrons in the middle.) It looks so simple, and indeed we have transmuted lead into gold, but, unfortunately, it take massive amounts of energy to swipe a few basic subatomic particles and turn one element into another.

That notwithstanding, transhumanists hope to convert not just lead into gold, but any element into any other. Like Star Trek’s replicator, scientists hope to use some basic bag of material (it really doesn’t matter what), destroy the material by tearing apart the subatomic particles, and then reassembling them into whatever configuration one wants. Bales of hay could be transmuted into a Ferrari, in theory.  The widespread use of that sort of technology leads to what some transhumanists call abundance; the utter irrelevance of ‘(personal) property’ as such because anything can be turned into anything else. I recently ran across the Foresight Institute’s page on molecular assemblers and I’m fascinated. But, by all accounts, the technology is many years away (but would probably represent the most important invention … ever.)

In the meantime, how is abundance looking? The Huffington Post recently ran an article by Peter Diamandis, who argues that technology has already vastly improved the world as a whole. Global per-capita incomes (inflation adjusted) have tripled, lifespands have doubled, childhood mortality has decreased by 99%. His fascinating article goes on to explain why, despite living in vastly better times (as a world community, not just Americans) we’re still focused on the negative.

To power abundance, of either the molecular assembler or the more recognized variety, we’ll need a lot of computing power. Moore’s Law has predicted, accurately, that the number of transistors on a chip would double every couple of years and, as a corollary, that the processing power would double about every 18 months. Every few years, people predict the end of Moore’s Law, but it’s remained accurate since 1965 (and, more generally, for technology since essentially forever according to Kurzweil.) Researchers from the University of South Whales and Purdue have recently created new wires in silicon a stunning one atom tall by four atoms wide. Such small wires could enable quantum computing in silicon; a stunning feat that would continue Moore’s Law into the foreseeable future. Additionally, it makes nano-scale engineering more feasible.

What could we do with all that computing power? Patrick Tucker of the World Future Society recently offered some thoughts. Artificial Intelligence is already being used to replace workers in China, but even professionals like doctors and lawyers are being helped / replaced by automated robots. Managing all the information being created is vital, so AI is being used to search speeches on TV like one searches the web with Google, and also to sift through human genomes to look for similarities. Google is creating self-driving cars. Researchers in China are identifying the cause of traffic jams based on two years worth of GPS data collected from 33,000 cabs. There will be, in short, need for all the computing power we’re inventing.

I’m going to switch gears for a moment to some random new discoveries. Technology Review reports on new advances in carbon nanotubes that are leading to materials that are more conductive and weigh much less than traditional materials. Meanwhile, technology company Lumus has created a pair of see-through augmented reality glasses that are lightweight and project a HD (720p), 3-D, 87″ screen into the wearer’s field of vision. They’re not the most stylish thing in the world, but who wouldn’t love to throw an 87″ TV into their backpack and set it up in the library? Better yet, let’s put these in a bionic eye. Additionally, scientists are trying to use robots to figure out how language evolves in the natural world, including among animals.

In the realm of ethics, Vinton Cerf argues that internet access is neither a human right nor a civil right in the New York Times opinion pages. This is in response, of course, to the argument that internet access -is- a human right, including a UN Report to that effect. Unsurprisingly, the blogosphere (I’ve wanted to use that word for a while) has lit up with responses on both sides. Here’s one example, from JD Rucker.

Finally, if you’re still feeling down about the world, check out Jason Silva’s videos on techno-optimism. The pattern video at the beginning is particularly good.