Category: Technology

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To Define the Beginning of Human Life or Not, That Is the Question

Twice a month I meet with some of my students for a critical reading.  In our last January meeting, we decided to commemorate Roe by re-exploring Judith Jarvis Thomson’s  seminal article A Defense of Abortion. Thomson’s defense of induced abortion by exploring our moral duties in the unrealistic case one found oneself kidnapped and plugged in to a virtuous violinist who is sick and needs one’s kidneys for nine months in order to heal has been highly criticized. Nonetheless, every time I read it or discuss it, I find how enlightening her thought experiment still is, as it confronts us with our set of moral beliefs and its incongrueties with our policy stances. Moreover, it makes me always ponder about our lack of a well-thought and coherent abortion regulating scheme.  But that is a topic for a different post. Today, I would like to concentrate on a related matter that stemmed from my discussion of Thomson’s article with my students.

By the end of our conversation my students and I were inquiring whether it was possible to assert a defense of stem cell research/therapy even taking for granted the right of life of the embryos, as Thomson did in her paper. It seemed obvious for almost all of us that using embryos for those purposes would be considered a blatant deprivation of the embryo’s right to life and an impermissible use of another person’s body; and thus, could not be sustained under Thomson’s argument. So we decided to try to come up with a scenario similar to Thomson’s violinist that could aid us in exploring the moral adequacy of stem cell research/therapy.

An appropriate thought experiment eluded our not so brilliant minds. We did not want to come up with a fallacious and common place thought experiment such as the one of the burning building test  in which one is forced to decide who to rescue first: twenty 8-cell embryos kept in a freezer or a baby in peril. We were not looking to formulate an experiment tilted to one side like the burning building test, in which the “incomplete human character” of the embryo is made self-evident by the “inescapable instinct” to rescue the “actual” human being. However, the truth is that it is quite difficult to come up, in a couple of minutes, with a reasonable possible scenario in which all the circumstances of stem cell research/therapy are replicated in a way that could sensibly help us assess our moral agency.

First, we would need to come up with a scenario in which we have a “human being” in a permanent frozen state (e.g. a cryogenized virtuous violinist) in which the conditions necessary for a successful life require a willing human host that is either related to the cryogenized violinist or has the authorization of his guardian to serve as a host for nine months.  Second, we must come up with a particular circumstance (e.g. a military operation) that would force the guardian of the cryogenized violinist to choose between using the frozen body to help in the recovery of a sick non-cryogenized human being (e.g. a  young Science Nobel laureate) whose only real, feasible and cost efficient chance to a healthy life is using that frozen body at the expense of eliminating all possible chances of an uncertain future life for the cryogenized violinist or leaving the cryogenized violinist frozen for an indefinite period of time and allowing for the sick non-cryogenized Nobel laureate to die. Finally, we would need to come up with the circumstances that led the cryogenized violinist to be treated as a surplus human being and at the same time be treated as the raw materials for the creation of future equally virtuous violinists (e.g. the practice of cloning virtuous musicians).  Furthermore, the example would need to consider the possibility of making the cryogenized violinist for the sole purpose of healing the sick non-cryogenized laureate (e.g. the possibility of the world coming to an end if the Nobel laureate does not find a solution to the problem before he dies from her sickness).

The end result is a very absurd, unrealistic and perhaps too intricate thought experiment.  Yet, exploring the limits of such an experiment may be a possible way to coming up with a defense of stem cell research/therapy even when one grants the right of life of the embryos.  Nonetheless, I would like to pose that the absurdity and illusory nature of these thought experiments suggest that we should face the inevitable: we must delimit when human life begins if we truly would like to come up with a moral/ethical regulation of stem cell research/therapy. This inescapable moral question is more evident when we contrast our legal stances and nation’s practices on issues like torture, war, death penalty, abortion, euthanasia and justification and necessity defenses.  The system is manifestly incoherent.

I do believe that a sensible answer will only come when we legally embrace the fact that life – and by extension human life – exists in a continuum. Law should echo that reality. A coherent and ethical sound system can only arise after we legally recognize that there is a point in that continuum in which life becomes human and that there are different stages before that point in which life is a subject of certain rights but not the same rights a human life is a subject thereof. Laws should define that moment and those stages. There is no moral reason to avoid doing so. As there is no ethical rationale either to treat totipotent, pluripotent, multipotent, oligopotent, unipotent cells, fully developed human beings not capable of living on their own, and born human beings in the same way.  Furthermore, our history and legal system have always made distinctions on how we treat the right to life of human beings based on particular deontological assumptions.

Our inquiry into how to regulate stem cell research/therapy should not be made under the assumption that embryos are in fact human beings and subjects of the same rights. A valid answer to this recent human reality must be based on a rigorous analysis of moral questions such as: 1. When does a life become a human life?; 2. Which type of rights is a non-human life entitled to?; 3. Are there different stages of a non-human life?; 4. Are those stages deserving of a differentiated right treatment?; 5. What are our moral duties to a human life?; 6.  What are our moral duties to a non-human life and it corresponding stages?; and 7. Under which circumstances are we relieved from those duties to human and non-human lives? These questions should be guiding our legislative process regarding scientific inquiries and not biased assumptions as to what constitutes human life.

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3D Printing Train Continues, Interview on TakePart Live tonight

I will be on TakePart Livetonight at 9 p.m. Pacific/11 Central/12 Eastern, to talk about 3D printing and all the fun it brings. I will be joined by a 3D printer entrepreneur who runs Deezmaker, a comic, and of course the hosts Jacob Soboroff and Cara Santa Maria. I was on the show last fall to talk about privacy and data hoarding. The hosts and crew are HuffPo veterans and a blast. The show is part of Pivot TV, which is available on DirectTV and Dish as well as some cable carriers. Looking forward to great night.

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Driverless Irony and Maybe Car Drone Drivers Coming Soon

Assumptions can break models and render rules incoherent. Some states such as California have required that a driverless or autonomous vehicle still have a licensed driver at the wheel in case the systems fail. A friend noted that this idea is useful in the rare case the vehicle encounters a situation it cannot handle. The idea may work today. It won’t work in the future.

What happens when the next generation is raised on driverless cars? Today we can assume that drivers have enough hours behind the wheel so that they might be able to take over if need be. But in five or ten years, what exactly will driver’s ed look like? Would we require youthful drivers, somewhat dangerous based on lack of experience, to drive more? That seems to defeat the upside to the technology. Yet if a generation of drivers never really drives, how can we expect them to take over for a sophisticated system pressed beyond its capabilities? As with pilots we might use simulators and such. Yet how many hours of that will be needed? Would it test the moments when the car cannot handle the situation? These points remind of the early days of Westlaw and Lexis. When I was in school, we were required to use analog research to start. The idea was that we may be without a terminal or access to legal databases. This problem would arise in courthouses. It was true at the time, but a few years later, the Internet and web based access negated that idea. There may still be some training on the old ways, but how much anyone needs or uses them is unclear. With cars, there will be a gap period when some will have the systems and some won’t. But at some point, I’d guess that most cars will have the system, and/or fewer people will own cars at all. Many may subscribe to services instead of owning a vehicle. Driving by hand will be a special art for the rich and old schoolers as they head to stores that sell LPs.

So what may be the supercool solution? Like Onstar, a car maker may have a group of drone operators for the outlier problems. If a car fails, a signal is sent. A video game junkie, err drone expert, takes over to handle the vehicle by remote. That person is training on cars and drone operation of them all the time. They have the expertise to take over when needed. Yes, you may cue the creepy music at this point.

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What Is Internet Use?

What is Internet use? The answer: It depends and it might matter. Pew has some ongoing work about the demographics of Internet use. The classic term is digital divide. A few things pop out here. Is Internet synonymous with the Web? With broadband? Are things shifting such that whether one is on a computer or phone matters? Think HTML 5 here and the dream of program once for a range of devices. According to Pew:

African Americans have long been less likely than whites to use the internet and to have high speed broadband access at home, and that continues to be the case. Today, African Americans trail whites by seven percentage points when it comes to overall internet use (87% of whites and 80% of blacks are internet users), and by twelve percentage points when it comes to home broadband adoption (74% of whites and 62% of blacks have some sort of broadband connection at home). At the same time, blacks and whites are on more equal footing when it comes to other types of access, especially on mobile platforms.

Pew draws a distinction between Internet and cell use. That may not be wise, although it may capture some differences. More and more folks hop onto a phone or tablet (or excuse me while I gag on the word “phablet”) to access the Internet. Cellular companies are shifting to data plans more than calling and texts. Why? Folks are using mobile devices to get on the Internet.

Of course it matters that any group is not accessing, or is not able to access, information. HTML 5 seems to be doing well, but a developer I met said that native (as in designed for a particular device) still matters for high quality interaction and offerings (such as apps for a service). Perhaps the most heartening finding was “Overall, 72% of all African Americans—and 98% of those between the ages of 18 and 29—have either a broadband connection or a smartphone.” But there is a hidden cost.

As Paul DiMaggio noted some time back TV was expensive in that one might pay it off over a few years, but it kept delivering well after that cost. The upside to cable, the Internet, and more is less centralized control. The downside is continual payment to access information. Even if one uses only a smartphone for information, the annual cost is hundreds of dollars. Throw in cable and the cost goes up.

Although some heads will explode, I must ask whether a public data system would be the sort of infrastructure that unleashes all sorts of good outcomes. Yet as I write these words, I know that the upkeep of networks, bandwidth problems, and other issues plague such a dream. Then again, the slowness of current networks and the numbers of people unable to be online suggest the market is not doing as well as it could.

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Hockney, Phones, and Is It Art?

Payphones DeYoungI was lucky enough to visit friends in the Bay Area and go to the de Young David Hockney exhibit. It is a large exhibit that starts on the bottom floor and moves up to another. In between you pass through a store for the exhibit. Beyond that I saw some other unintentional art. Three pay phones. 50 cents a call. I assume they worked. Didn’t touch. Might have been an installation of quaint technology.

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Public Domain? We ain’t got no Public Domain. We don’t need no Public Domain! I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ Public Domain!

With apologies to B. Traven and John Huston, I note that Duke’s Center for the Public Domain has a nice post about what might have been in the public domain. In my paper The Life and Death of Copyright, I go over how a few authors rallied with American interests to extend copyright term. I also show that no matter which of the main theories one looks to for IP, none supports copyright after death. None.

In other words, folks who usually disagree about all sorts of nuances in copyright, (It’s labor! It’s the personhood! It’s utilitarian!) converge on, or at least have no good support for copyright after death. Paul Heald’s work shows that the dreaded under-production myth is just that, a myth. Aram Sinnreich’s The Piracy Crusade just came out and gets into the problems with locking up work. I’ve just started it, but his run through history, sociology, and more looks to be a great addition to the literature in this space.

So it’s a new year. Old fights are with us. New ones will come. The sun also rises. Time for naked lunch.

(Note: Burroughs claimed the phrase, Naked Lunch, meant a “frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.” or the truth albeit ugly).

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Tech Literacy: One more of my end of year, bookmarked to share posts

A few weeks back Juliet Walters wrote an op-ed called the The Code Life. I had read the Eggers excerpt of The Circle and thought it was odd; odd because having worked at Google and been in the Valley, his portrayal was not that creepy. It was just corporate America. Office Space alone captures the be all you can as part of a team which may not value you (cue Lorde to contrast and for irony). Walters goes further. She has tried coding as a way to understand and take some control over her life. She used Code Academy to learn coding and found

Yes, programming is challenging, frustrating and often tedious. But it offers satisfactions that are not unlike those of writing. The elegant loops of logic, the attention to detail, the mission of getting the maximum amount of impact from the fewest possible lines, the feeling of making something engaging from a few wispy, abstract ideas — these challenges were familiar to me as a critic. By my third month, I had internalized a new logic, a different way of looking at information. By the time summer came around, I was learning about good web design by constructing web applications, taking them from simple prototypes to something sophisticated enough to test with users. And by the end of the course, I knew the basic structure of computer operating systems.

For me, even reading computer science papers and theory has given me a better, deeper appreciation for the tech world, how it works, and policy debates (both worthwhile and frivolous). And I was happy to read Walters re-calibrated her life:

The biggest surprise has been the recovery of the feeling that my mind is once again my own. The “always-on” agenda of mobile technology, now visible to me in the very design of the devices, could not manipulate me as easily. Where my devices were interrupting my work or my life in these ways, I’ve had an easier time filtering and controlling them.

It’s also become more obvious to me how to use social media to enrich my life, not unravel it. For one, I don’t waste time trying to “catch up” on a Twitter or Facebook feed, any more than I would waste time ringing the doorbell of every person in my neighborhood every day.

With understanding comes more reasoned responses to technology and how it fits into our life. When Walters write she sympathizes with Eggers and Franzen (another tech critic) but rejected their tribalism and embrace of “techno-illiteracy.” Her example is a call for STEM without being explicit. I hope to add some Code Academy to my learning list this year. I don’t always get to such goals, but Walters, a humanities type, like me, found a world I like too. Coding may not set us free, but it may open the door to new freedoms. Tech literacy should at least help stop the real threat of those who misuse technology by allowing us to offer other options and to call B.S. on tech utopianism, and thus counter the downside of technology more than we suspect.

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We Will All Be Jaime Sommers – 3D printing ears

Thanks to 3D printing and advances in material sciences, questions I had a few years ago about what data is sent, how we are regulated, and of course illusive ownership are hitting home for biomedical, implanted devices. I wrote about some of these issues in a short piece about the implications of a post-human world. I thought about implanted medical devices and the idea that we are becoming appliances with all the contracts and data issues we see online moving to the body.

On the one hand, I love some of the outcomes of this engineering. For example, what if we all could be the Bionic Woman? Michael McAlpine of Princeton may be making it so that anyone could have a bionic ear, and he wants to improve us even more. He is engineering:

a synthetic ear made with a 3-D bioprinter, is a realization of that vision. The complex biomechanical structure was fabricated by depositing live cells and conductive silver in layers. It started as an exploration of material properties, but commercial applications started to appear rapidly. He discovered that cochlear implants, a leading treatment for those with some hearing impairment, are made by hand in a slow and laborious process with costs to match.

His work draws on the way hearing works. The interface sends “the electronic signal right into your medula and brings us one step closer to a world where we can learn kung fu by plugging into a computer.” That idea is fantastic (as in fantasy) but his main point, “It will just be considered normal that you have electronics embedded in your body, … You won’t think its weird that a door will just open up as you walk towards it. We will become cyborgs and it will be seen as just a normal thing” connects to my piece.

So on the other hand, as these changes move forward, we will have to consider what is control over health and other data that may come from within us. Security and hacking will take on new dimensions. I also think that class will play a role. If devices and surgery are expensive but “natural” will only the rich get to have them? Will the poor be stuck sneaking steroids will the privileged pay for dexterity enhancement?

I don’t think dystopia is ahead. I think these questions are the right and fun ones to consider and manage. Again the New Year looks good.

P.S. Jamie Boyle’s Shamans, Software, and Spleens is ever more relevant, as we move into the next technology era.

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Digital Death – What Happens to Your Digital Stuff

What happens to your to your email and other digital content after you die? That question continues to pop up. Back in 2008, I wondered about the issue in a paper called Property, Persona, and Preservation. I noticed a sort of cloud effect. Once we moved email to the web, we were distanced from our creations. For those interested in the theories behind my argument, read the whole paper. But if you want to skip to the policy and application material, skip to part III starting at page 111.

In fact, while I was at Google, Google and a few other email providers started to come up with ways to let heirs access content and to let creators of content signal whether they wanted that work to be shared with heirs. Those solutions tracked some ideas I offered. I am not sure whether the paper was part of their reading but was happy to see the changes. Nonetheless as Pew shows, how we preserve, protect, and control that work will continue to be a problem. The Pew report notes that states and the Uniform Law Commission are starting to come up with laws to address digital estate issues. I will write a follow up to this post, but for now, I offer that any solution should allow Service Providers the ability to set defaults and users to alter them. In short, if someone wants to have an email account for things he or she would rather not have known, the user should be able to click a setting that says “This email account will self-destruct upon the provision of a death certificate.” Now we might want to let an executor verify these wishes and so on rather than relying on Service Provider’s insight or discretion. Still a clear signal about what one wants can be built into how we preserve or destroy our digital history.

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Peer review, replication, and thankless tasks

Peer review and the ability to test claims are powerful but not infallible. The video (here) from The Economist covers the way science and peer review may not be great or as reliable as we hope or believe. In short, industry such as pharmaceuticals, may draw on academia, but the research cannot be replicated. Pharma has revealed that issue. Many who think about this issue know that replication and verification is not well-rewarded, and so the scientific method may not live up to its potential. The chat also gets into some nice issues regarding statistics and false positives. It also looks at the failure of peer reviewers to do their jobs as well as desired (for example, not catching errors that one journal inserted as a test). And, peer review is not about reviewing the raw data.

I wonder whether open data sets as Victoria Stodden has described them will help here. It may be that modeling and other software approaches will be able to test the raw data and examine the method of collection to note it limits and find errors. Who knows? Maybe replication can be automated so that people could focus on the new work and machines can deal with the drudgery of “Yes, that is correct.”

UPDATE: I noticed that The Economist has an autoplay ad. That is lame. I have removed the embedded video but still recommend going to the site to watch it.