December 19, 2012

Another New Year's List

Science fiction is becoming science fact much faster than you might think. Behind the closed doors of the world's laboratories and research facilities, a strange new world is taking shape. While science boldly goes where no man has gone before, the rest of us are just taken along for the ride. No one asks us if we wanted to go. No one tells us where the journey might lead. What emerges from Pandora's Box after the lid is pried open, well, that's our problem.

The folks at University of Notre Dame's John J. Reilly Center for Science, Technology and Values have seen the future, and they are worried. They recently issued a list of Emerging Ethical Dilemmas and Policy Issues in Science and Technology. Any one of the items is enough to change your life. Taken together, they will change your world. The original article contains links to further resources on each of these issues. Many have been discussed in this forum. As we approach another new year, perhaps we ought to consider what kind of brave new world our grandchildren will be force-marched into unless we ask some hard questions today.

Personal genetic tests/personalized medicine: It won't be long before you can order your own genetic sequencing for about $1,000. And there will be a lot of people lining up for it. But then the real questions begin. Who will tell you what it all means? Will your insurance company pay? What about privacy? Does your spouse (or your boss) have a right to know? Should everyone have access or just those with the money?

Hacking into medical devices: Medical devices such as insulin pumps and pacemakers contain computer chips that can be easily hacked. Like cell phones, not a whole lot of thought was given to securing the coding or the data stored on them. Many devices were designed to allow doctors to reprogram them in an emergency. A professional hacker recently reprogrammed a pacemaker to deliver an 830-volt shock.What is a boon for mystery writers in search of novel ways to murder people could be a real problem if a criminal or terrorist decides to throw a scare into people ... literally.

Driverless zipcars: Google cars can be operated hands-off and are legal in three states. Think about an elderly person who has been told he or she can no longer drive. Wouldn't they jump at the chance to own such a vehicle? Google wants to have fleets of hands-off cars that can be shared by a group of users who pay an annual fee. This is truly a game changer. But how long will it take the existing legal and political and insurance system to catch up? Roadways would be shared by traditional and Google vehicles for decades. How would that work?

3-D printing: I've been fascinated by this concept for some time. Starting next year, Staples will offer 3-D printing to customers in the Netherlands and Belgium. Coming soon to a Staples near you! The impact of this process on manufacturing and society will be enormous. How many jobs will be lost when I can go to a kiosk at Bed, Bath and Beyond and print out my dishes on demand? How will law enforcement cope with a criminal element that can use ever-cheaper 3-D printers to create weapons on demand?

Adaptation to climate change: No need to spend much time on this. Regular readers already know how I feel about this. The cost of dealing with climate change, the impact of rising sea levels and extreme weather events, changing agricultural patterns and the resultant mass migrations, the military implications, our obligation to help other life forms on the planet deal with the mess we created ... the list of ethical issues is as long as the list of reasons why we screwed up so badly in the first place.

Low-quality and counterfeit pharmaceuticals: Is it okay for drug companies to control the manufacture of life-saving drugs? India doesn't think so. They favor manufacturing life-saving drugs, even If it violates US patent law. What about cheap versions made in Mexico or imported from Canada? How do we know they are safe? How can we ever know for sure that any drug has been manufactured safely? What about off-label uses? Who is in charge, anyway?

Autonomous systems: Is it okay to ask robots to fight our wars for us? Do you want a robot to take out your ruptured spleen? Is it okay to have machines that can take action based on what they decide is the correct thing to do? Who is responsible when things go wrong? Machines are getting a mind of their own. Sometimes that's a good thing. But anyone who has seen the Terminator movies will be a little worried. We need to make up our own minds on how we feel about this.

Human-animal hybrids (chimeras): This was a new one for me. Mixing and matching humans and animals at the cellular level is something that would cause most of us to say, "Whoa, dude. What's up with that?" Indeed, what is up with that? Well, scientists are taking animal eggs and sucking out most but not quite all of the original DNA and replacing it with human DNA to generate human stem cells that can be used for a wide variety of useful and worthy purposes. But is this a road we want to go down? For a lot of scientists, the answer is "yes." Others worry it will inevitably lead to new life forms that combine human and animal shapes and characteristics. Given our track record, I would have to say this is a legitimate concern.

Ensuring access to wireless and spectrum: This issue has been around since the late 90s when it became apparent that the Internet was a truly transformative piece of technology. Like some of the other issues raised here, there is a question of social equity that needs to be addressed. Is it fair that information and assistance is to some extent controlled by one's ability to access the Internet? Is it fair that certain governmental functions are only available through the Internet? Given that radio spectrum is a finite resource, who gets to decide how it is sliced and diced? How to reconcile increasing security needs with a greater demand for universal access?

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