future generations

How to deal with double-edged technology

By Brian D. Earp

 World’s smallest drone? Or how to deal with double-edged technology 

BBC News reports that Harvard scientists have developed the world’s smallest flying robot. It’s about the size of a penny, and it moves faster than a human hand can swat. Of course, the inventors of this “diminutive flying vehicle” immediately lauded its potential for bringing good to the world:

1. “We could envision these robots being used for search-and-rescue operations to search for human survivors under collapsed buildings or [in] other hazardous environments.”

2. “They [could] be used for environmental monitoring, to be dispersed into a habitat to sense trace chemicals or other factors.”

3. They might even behave like many real insects and assist with the pollination of crops, “to function as the now-struggling honeybee populations do in supporting agriculture around the world.”

These all seem like pretty commendable uses of a new technology. Yet one can think of some “bad” uses too. The “search and rescue” version of this robot (for example) would presumably be fitted with a camera; and the prospect of a swarm of tiny, remote-controlled flying video recorders raises some obvious questions about spying and privacy. It also prompts one to wonder who will have access to these spy bugs (the U.S. Air Force has long been interested in building miniature espionage drones), and whether there will be effective regulatory strategies capable of tilting future usage more toward the search-and-rescue side of things, and away from the peep-and-record side.

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Sustainable Fish Week at Ghent University

This week is ‘Sustainable Fish Week’ at Ghent University in Belgium. All fish on the university restaurants’ menus come from sustainable fisheries or fish farms (with practices that can be maintained without reducing the ability of the target fish to maintain its population and without threatening other species within the ecosystem, for example, by removing their food source, accidentally catching and killing them, or damaging their habitat). Tuna sandwiches will be taken off the menu and a sustainable alternative will be provided instead. Those who take their meal at a university restaurant will receive a free ‘fish guide’ with helpful information for making responsible fish choices at home. Those with strong stomachs may also enjoy the opportunity to taste jellyfish at the university restaurants. The message is that, if we continue to eat unsustainable fish, then soon jellyfish will be the only alternative to fish left on the menu.

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ASSASSINATING CITIZENS: How not to fight terror

By Brian Earp

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In this ‘hour’ of danger: Civil liberties and the eternal threat of terror

NBC’s Pete Williams reports:

The U.S. government is legally justified in killing its own citizens overseas if they are involved in plotting terror attacks against America, Attorney General Eric Holder said Monday.

“In this hour of danger, we simply cannot afford to wait until deadly plans are carried out, and we will not,” he said in remarks prepared for a speech at Northwestern University’s law school in Chicago.

Pay attention to Mr. Holder’s choice of words here. This hour of danger? Excuse me: an “hour” is a bounded stretch of time – and not very long. But terrorism is a threat with no border – it has existed always, and will continue indefinitely. The “war on terror” cannot be won: you can kill a terrorist, sure, but you cannot eliminate a tactic. So let us not talk about an “hour.” This sort of speech is insidious. We all know that an hour takes sixty minutes and then it’s finished. But terrorism will present a “danger” forever.

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Rick Santorum, birth control, and “playing God”

By Brian Earp

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Rick Santorum, birth control, and “playing God”

Rick Santorum thinks that birth control is immoral. Santorum, a former Senator from Pennsylvania, is one of two human beings – if the polls have it right – likeliest to become the Republication nominee for President of the United States this election cycle.

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Would the End of the World really be so Bad?

As always, we sentient beings on earth are at risk of being wiped out by some global catastrophe. Some of the risks – diseases or meteorites – are old; others – nuclear weapons or global warming – are more recent. They are discussed very well in Nick Bostrom and Milan Cirkovic’s edited collection Global Catastrophic Risks:

http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780198570509.do?keyword=bostrom&sortby=bestMatches

In one sense, a catastrophe is just major systematic change. It needn’t be bad. But of course many people believe that the ending of sentient life on this planet would be a catastrophe in the evaluative sense. It would be very bad for most of the sentient beings living at the time of the catastrophe, and bad in some more impersonal sense since it would prevent many potential sentient beings from becoming actual.

Clearly the ending of sentient life isn’t the worst outcome imaginable. That would involve the existence of sentient beings, in great agony. But the question remains whether this kind of catastrophe would be worse than its not happening, with things continuing much as they are.

It’s at least arguable that it would not be worse. Most would accept that it could be good for some individuals – perhaps those with only a short time of intense agony left. But they would also think that the overall suffering in the world is counterbalanced by the good things in the lives of sentient beings, considered as a whole.

This seems very plausible as a claim about the lives of some such beings. But some individuals have lives of an extremely low quality, consisting sometimes of nothing much more than great agony over a fairly protracted period. How are we to weigh the value of all these different lives against one another?

In his An Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation (1946), the American philosopher C.I. Lewis suggested that we might attempt such comparisons by imagining that we ourselves have to live the lives of all those concerned, in series. It might seem that such a comparison relies on some controversial theory of personal identity. But it need not. Imagine that by some means your own life could be extended hugely, and that you would then be plugged into some machine that would ‘play back’ into your consciousness all the experiences of all sentient beings until there were no more left.

Of course, many of these experiences would be wonderful. But many of them would be very bad indeed. It’s not clear to me that this stream of experiences would overall be better for me than no experiences at all, since the amount of suffering would be so great that perhaps no amount of good experience could counterbalance it. If this is the right view, then a global catastrophe might be something to be welcomed, at least from the impartial or moral point of view.

Pulp Friction in Tasmania: when is a little dioxin to much dioxin?

When is a little dioxin too much dioxin?

Dioxin is a persistent organic pollutant (POP) that accumulates in the food chain and is highly toxic to living systems. The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants commits signatories to ‘reduce or where feasible, eliminate the production and environmental release’ of dioxin.

So we know that dioxin is not a good thing to be releasing into the environment. And we also know that particular human activities, such as the smelting process that produces certain metals and chlorine bleaching of wood pulp in the paper industry produce dioxin. The question is when is it ‘feasible’ to eliminate the production and environmental release of dioxin? Continue reading

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