The Clickbait Candidate

By James Williams (@WilliamsJames_)
Note: This is a cross-post with Quillette magazine.

While ‘interrobang’ sounds like a technique Donald Trump might add to the Guantanamo Bay playbook, it in fact refers to a punctuation mark: a disused mashup of interrogation and exclamation that indicates shock, surprise, excitement, or disbelief. It looks like this: ‽ (a rectangle means your font doesn’t support the symbol). In view of how challenging it seems for anyone to articulate the fundamental weirdness of Trump’s proximity to the office of President of the United States, I propose that we resuscitate the interrobang, because our normal orthographic tools clearly are not up to the task.

Yet even more interrobang-able than the prospect of a Trump presidency is the fact that those opposing his candidacy seem to have almost no understanding of the media dynamics that have enabled it to rise and thrive. Trump is perhaps the most straightforward embodiment of the dynamics of the so-called ‘attention economy’—the pervasive, all-out war over our attention in which all of our media have now been conscripted—that the world has yet seen. He is one of the geniuses of our time in the art of attentional manipulation.

If we ever hope to have a societal conversation about the design ethics of the attention economy—especially the ways in which it incentivizes technology design to push certain buttons in our brains that are incompatible with the assumptions of democracy—now would be the time. Continue reading

Guest Post: Mind the accountability gap: On the ethics of shared autonomy between humans and intelligent medical devices

Guest Post by Philipp Kellmeyer

Imagine you had epilepsy and, despite taking a daily cocktail of several anti-epileptic drugs, still suffered several seizures per week, some minor, some resulting in bruises and other injuries. The source of your epileptic seizures lies in a brain region that is important for language. Therefore, your neurologist told you, epilepsy surgery – removing brain tissue that has been identified as the source of seizures in continuous monitoring with intracranial electroencephalography (iEEG) – is not viable in your case because it would lead to permanent damage to your language ability.

There is however, says your neurologist, an innovative clinical trial under way that might reduce the frequency and severity of your seizures. In this trial, a new device is implanted in your head that contains an electrode array for recording your brain activity directly from the brain surface and for applying small electric shocks to interrupt an impending seizure.

The electrode array connects wirelessly to a small computer that analyses the information from the electrodes to assess your seizure risk at any given moment in order to decide when to administer an electric shock. The neurologist informs you that trials with similar devices have achieved a reduction in the frequency of severe seizures in 50% of patients so that there would be a good chance that you benefit from taking part in the trial.

Now, imagine you decided to participate in the trial and it turns out that the device comes with two options: In one setting, you get no feedback on your current seizure risk by the device and the decision when to administer an electric shock to prevent an impending seizure is taken solely by the device.

This keeps you completely out of the loop in terms of being able to modify your behaviour according to your seizure risk and – in a sense – relegates some autonomy of decision-making to the intelligent medical device inside your head.

In the other setting, the system comes with a “traffic light” that signals your current risk level for a seizure, with green indicating a low, yellow a medium, and red a high probability of a seizure. In case of an evolving seizure, the device may additionally warn you with an alarm tone. In this scenario, you are kept in the loop and you retain your capacity to modify your behavior accordingly, for example to step from a ladder or stop riding a bike when you are “in the red.”

Continue reading

Consciousness, memory and value

HBO’s new show Westworld has been getting a lot of attention. As the AV Club pointed out, it was HBO’s highest-rated premiere since ‘the good True Detective’ (i.e., since season one). The first episode involved a robot with human-like intelligence going through a truly horrible day to cater to the whims of actual humans, and then having her memory erased so she could do it again and again.

Among other (surely more interesting) properties of the show, there is this: the show functions as an extended philosophical thought experiment. Through philosophical thought experiments, experimenters probe our imagination and our intuitions to reveal the things and the ways that we think about important philosophical issues. One’s reactions to Westworld are philosophically illuminating. Continue reading

The goodness of being multi-planetary

The Economist has a leader “For life, not for an afterlife“, in which it argues that Elon Musk’s stated motivation to settle Mars – making humanity a multi-planetary species less likely to go extinct – is misguided: “Seeking to make Earth expendable is not a good reason to settle other planets”. Is it misguided, or is the Economist‘s reasoning misguided? Continue reading

Genome editing – the key ethical issues

Written by Dr Christopher Gyngell

This article originally appeared on the OMS website

The Nuffield Council of Bioethics released a report last Friday outlining the key ethical issues raised by genome editing technologies.

Genome editing (GE) is a powerful, and extremely rapidly developing technology. It uses engineered enzymes to make precise, controlled modification to DNA. It has the potential to radically transform many industries, including medicine, agriculture and ecology.  Despite only being developed in the past few years’, GE has already been used to create malaria-fighting mosquitoes, drought resistant wheat, hornless cows and cancer killing immune cells. The potential applications of GE in a decade are difficult to imagine. It raises a wide range of ethical issues that require careful scrutiny. Continue reading

Guest Post: Epigenetics: Barriers to the translation of scientific knowledge into public policies

Written by Charles Dupras and Vardit Ravitsky

Bioethics Programs, School of Public Health, University of Montreal


Environmental epigenetics is a rising field of scientific research that has been receiving much attention. It explores how exposure to various physical and social environments (e.g. pollution or social adversity) affects gene expression and, eventually, our health. Environmental epigenetics can sometimes explain why some of us carry increased risks of developing specific diseases. It provides activists a powerful vocabulary to promote environmental awareness and social justice. This new vocabulary, which allows us to discuss the consequences of disparities at the molecular level, has been enthusiastically mobilized as an effective way of stimulating political will for promoting public health preventive strategies. Continue reading

Cross Post: Ig Nobel Prize Winner: Why I Lived Like a Badger, an Otter, a Deer and a Swift

Written by Charles Foster, Research Associate, University of Oxford

This article was originally published in The Conversation

I have lived as a badger in a hole in a Welsh wood, as an otter in the rivers of Exmoor, an urban fox rummaging through the dustbins of London’s East End, a red deer in the West Highlands of Scotland and on Exmoor, and, most hubristically, a swift, oscillating between Oxford and West Africa. For this I was recently awarded an Ig Nobel Prize for “achievements that make people laugh, and then think”. Why I did this is not an unreasonable question. There are many answers. One is that I wanted to perceive landscapes more accurately. Continue reading

Cross Post: What do sugar and climate change have in common? Misplaced scepticism of the science

Written by Professor Neil Levy, Senior Research Fellow, Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation

Erosion of the case against sugar. Shutterstock

Why do we think that climate sceptics are irrational? A major reason is that almost none of them have any genuine expertise in climate science (most have no scientific expertise at all), yet they’re confident that they know better than the scientists. Science is hard. Seeing patterns in noisy data requires statistical expertise, for instance. Climate data is very noisy: we shouldn’t rely on common sense to analyse it. We are instead forced to use the assessment of experts. Continue reading

Anybody Out There?

By Guy Kahane

These days it seems as if every couple of weeks or so we get reports about newly discovered planets that are ever more similar to Earth. The most recent discovery, planet Proxima b, is the closest planet found so far; Scientific American called it ‘the Earth next door’. Last October, an amateur group of astronomers noticed that the star KIC8462852 was flickering in an odd way, its brightness changing by up to 22 per cent, a much larger change than could be explained by any familiar cause. Some science fiction fans speculated that this might be a ‘Dyson Sphere’—signs of a super-advanced civilization desperately trying to harness energy from their sun. No convincing explanation of this effect has been found so far, and another star, called EPIC 204278916, was recently spotted exhibiting the same mysterious flicker. Then it was reported that Russian radio astronomers recorded a two-second burst of mysteriously strong radio waves coming from a sun-like star in the Hercules constellation.

We know we shouldn’t get too excited. Even if there are numerous Earth-like planets out there, they may all be lifeless. And scientists will probably eventually find perfectly natural explanations for these strange flickers and signals (the Russian report already seems to be a false alarm, caused by terrestrial interference). But still: it’s hard not to anticipate the day—perhaps in the coming few years, perhaps later in our lifetime—when strong, perhaps undeniable evidence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe will emerge. It sure feels as if that will be an incredibly important discovery. Arthur C. Clarke once said that “there are two possibilities: either we are alone in the universe, or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” But it’s not that easy to explain why.

Continue reading

DNA papers, please

Kuwait is planning to build a complete DNA database of not just citizens but all other residents and temporary visitorsThe motivation is claimed to be antiterrorism (the universal motivation!) and fighting crime. Many are outraged, from local lawyers over a UN human rights committee to the European Society of Human Genetics, and think that it will not be very helpful against terrorism (how does having the DNA of a suicide bomber help after the fact?) Rather, there are reasons to worry about misuse in paternity testing (Kuwait has strict adultery laws),  and in the politics of citizenship (which provides many benefits): it is strictly circumscribed to paternal descendants of the original Kuwaiti settlers, and there is significant discrimination against people with no recognized paternity such as the Bidun minority. Plus, and this might be another strong motivation for many of the scientists protesting against the law, it might put off public willingness to donate their genomes into research databases where they actually do some good. Obviously it might also put visitors off visiting – would, for example, foreign heads of state accept leaving their genome in the hands of another state? Not to mention the discovery of adultery in ruling families – there is a certain gamble in doing this.

Overall, it seems few outside the Kuwaiti government are cheering for the law. When I recently participated in a panel discussion organised by the BSA at the Wellcome Collection about genetic privacy, at the question “Would anybody here accept mandatory genetic collection?” only one or two hands rose in the large audience. When would it make sense to make mandatory genetic information collection? Continue reading


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