Google is said to have dropped the famous “Don’t be evil” slogan. Actually, it is the holding company Alphabet that merely wants employees to “do the right thing”. Regardless of what one thinks about the actual behaviour and ethics of Google, it seems that it got one thing right early on: a recognition that it was moving in a morally charged space.
Google is in many ways an algorithm company: it was founded on PageRank, a clever algorithm for finding relevant web pages, scaled up thanks to MapReduce algorithms, use algorithms for choosing adverts, driving cars and selecting nuances of blue. These algorithms have large real world effects, and the way they function and are used matters morally.
Can we make and use algorithms more ethically?
Today, I noticed two news stories: BBC future reported about the Korean work on killer robots (autonomous gun turrets that can identify, track and attack) and BBC news reported on the formation of a campaign to ban sex robots, clearly mirrored on the existing campaign to stop killer robots.
Much of the robot discourse is of course just airing hopes and fears about the future, projected onto futuristic devices. But robots are also real things increasingly used for real applications, potentially posing actual threats and affecting social norms. When does it make sense to start a campaign to stop the development of robots that do X?
By Ben Levinstein and Anders Sandberg
Almost everybody agrees factory farming is morally outrageous, with several billions of animals living lives that are likely not worth living. One possible solution to this moral disaster is to make in vitro meat technologically and commercially viable. In vitro meat is biologically identical to real meat but cultured in a tank: one day it may become cheaper, more efficient and safer than normal meat. On animal welfare grounds, then, in vitro meat seems like a clear win as it has the potential to eliminate or greatly reduce the need for factory farms. However, there is a problem…
by Anders Sandberg and Ben Levinstein
Over the past week we have been subsumed by the intense, final work phase just before the deadline of a big, complex report. The profanity-density has been high, mostly aimed at Google, Microsoft and Apple. Not all of it was deserved, but it brought home the issue that designing software carries moral implications. Continue reading
That people in all cultures around the world use plant drugs to heal, intoxicate, or enhance themselves is well known. What is less well known – at least to me – is that many cultures give drugs to their dogs to improve hunting success. A new paper in Journal of Ethnopharmacology by B.D. Bennett and R. Alarcón reviews the plants used in lowland Ecuador, Peru and elsewhere.
They find a wide variety of drugs used. Some are clearly medicinal or just hide the dog’s scent. Others are intended as enhancers of night vision or smell. Some are psychoactive and intended to influence behaviour – make it walk straight, follow game tenaciously, be more alert, understand humans, or “not become a vagrant”. Several drugs are hallucinogenic, which may appear bizarre – how could that possibly help? The authors suggest that in the right dose they might create synaesthesia or other forms of altered perception that actually make the dogs better hunters by changing their sensory gating. Is drugging dogs OK? Continue reading
A recent series of papers have constructed a biochemical pathway that allows yeast to produce opiates. It is not quite a sugar-to-heroin home brew yet, but putting together the pieces looks fairly doable in the very near term. I think I called the news almost exactly five years ago on this blog.
People, including the involved researchers, are concerned and think regulation is needed. It is an interesting case of dual-use biotechnology. While making opiates may be somewhat less frightening than making pathogens, it is still a problematic use of biotechnology: millions of people are addicted, and making it easier for them to get access would worsen the problem. Or would it?
Jonathan Moreno presented a special lecture the 18th about “Mind Wars”, the military applications of neurotechnology. Here are some of my notes and comments inspired by this stimulating lecture. Continue reading
Doctors Offering ‘Gay Gene’ To Same Sex Couples Wanting Gay Children: apparently Dr. William Strider at the Fertility Center of Chicago suggests that homosexual parents should have the option of increasing the chances of their kid being homosexual:
“When straight couples have children, the majority of them want their children to be straight as well. That is why most straight parents have trouble accepting it when their children announce to them that they are gay,” … “So it only makes sense that same-sex couples would want children that carried out their same family values of homosexuality.”
The article is likely reporting wrong on what method would be used: germline manipulation sounds like a unproven and risky approach, while PGD is a proven technique that could presumably select based on X-chromosome sequence. And given the topic it is not implausible that Dr. Strider is being misquoted. But let’s take everything at face value: would it be ethical to select for sexual preference?
Christmas is the season when prices, costs and value are on everybody’s mind. At least when trying to estimate how much a present is worth to a friend or family member (and the value of our own happiness at their happiness): is it really worth the price in the store? Lee Billings recounts a fascinating discussion with the astronomer Greg Laughlin and natural capital expert Taylor Ricketts about How Much Money Would an Earth-Like Exoplanet Really Be Worth to Us? A closely related question is of course: what is Earth worth?