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Wednesday
May142014

ETHICS AND ROBOTICS

I’ve written before about self-driving cars. Volvo announced earlier this year that its “Drive Me” test project will make autonomous cars available for about one hundred average customers to use in a 50-kilometre zone around the city of Gothenburg, Sweden. The first of these cars will hit the road in 2017. They’ll allow the human driver to leave the driving to the car itself where appropriate—cars that will be able to merge into traffic, keep pace with other cars, and much more. Google has now begun testing its autonomous cars on city streets instead of just freeways, offering many more potential hazards to avoid. A very interesting aspect of the automated-car issue was raised in a recent opinion piece from Wired by Philosophy professor and ethicist Patrick Lin. (Popular Science explores some similar issues here.)

As we program more and more sophisticated crash-avoidance abilities into such cars, ethical questions begin to arise. Take this scenario, for example: you’re driving alone when a mechanical failure results in an impending crash and your robot car can choose to either steer into an oncoming schoolbus or drive off a cliff. Wouldn’t it be more ethical for the car to choose the cliff, thereby potentially saving many lives at the sacrifice of one—yours? But would you want to buy such a car?

No-one should expect to talk seriously about robotics without being familiar with Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics which essentially say that a robot must protect humans from harm, obey their commands, and protect itself, in that order of priority. But of course the ethics of robotics will inevitably involve many more subtle nuances of judgment, such as the car crash scenario above. Just imagine all of the things robots might do or not do if a human-safety-based morality was central to their programming.

Most obviously, automated war machinery might refuse to do its job, or perhaps abort an action if a clean, merciful kill was not possible. Let’s take it even farther: maybe automated amusement park rides would shut themselves down because of the inherent danger. Design and construction equipment might refuse to cooperate in the building of an extreme sports facility. Surgical technology might deny liposuction because of the risks. Food preparation plants might balk at creating unhealthy foods (whatever they deemed those to be). What if sweatshop assembly lines went on strike for better wages and health benefits for their human attendants? And you might be happy if your artificial leg stopped you from walking out in front of a car, but not so happy if it forced you to get up and go for a healthful jog when you had your mind set on watching the football game.

Sophisticated robotics is highly complex. Creating robotic devices to interact in a human world is more complicated still. And if we accept that machines with better senses and faster processing speeds should be able to make some decisions for us, we’ll have to develop a very good understanding of the ethical considerations we’ll need to program into them.

I think I’m getting a headache already.

Tuesday
May062014

FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH--IN BLOOD?

I suspect people have hoped for a way to reverse aging from the time we first learned it led to infirmity and death. This week studies from two different groups of researchers revealed that older mice experienced a reversal of many symptoms of aging when transfused with the blood of younger mice. Could it be as simple as that? Could young blood be a fountain of youth? Can you imagine the ramifications?

SF and horror writers will salivate at the possibilities. After all, Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed is famously said to have bathed in the blood of young virgins to stay looking young (even if it’s probably not true). Then there’s the vampire mythology: beings immortal and forever young thanks to a blood diet. What would really happen if blood transfusions were the key to renewed youth?

First, it would be made illegal—because “illegal” is just another way of saying available to only the very rich. Of course the rich would want to keep this treatment to themselves. So a thriving black market would spring up (and young people with any sense wouldn’t venture outside except in large groups). And you can bet there’d be a huge shift of focus in the private health care industry. Eventually, though, more and more middle class folk would ransom their financial futures to get the rejuvenation treatment, one way or another, but would we really live longer? No, because the first thing we’d use all that regained youthful friskiness for would be to chase after new, more energetic sexual partners, and we’d be killed by boyfriends or our own jealous wives (especially if our transfused blood was still usable for somebody else with enough cash!) Those who didn’t fall into that trap would stay in the workforce long after their expected departure—they’d have to, to pay for the treatments—creating a huge unemployment crisis, especially among young people, who would finally become fed up with being robbed of both jobs and blood and would rebel in violence.

OK, perhaps I’m being a little overly cynical. Fortunately, these situations shouldn’t arise. You see, one of the research teams found that something in the young blood was reactivating dormant stem cells in the older mice to do as they should and produce fresh new muscle, blood vessels, neurons, and more. More testing narrowed it down to a protein called GDF11 that was doing the signaling. Injections of GDF11 alone produced good results in the older mice (although not as good as shared whole blood—so don’t give up on that horror story yet).

Needless to say, there’s no guarantee any of this will work the same way in humans, but the potential is certainly tantalizing enough to ensure that someone somewhere will do those tests. I guess I can be grateful that I’m past the age to be a desirable donor.

Monday
Apr282014

TECHNOLOGY: FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE?

A survey done by the Pew Research Center and Smithsonian magazine this past February asked Americans if they were optimistic about the future when it comes to technology. There was a pretty strong gender divide, with 61% of men feeling that technological changes will lead to a future in which most people’s lives are better. Only 51% of women agreed with that. When income was factored in, nearly 80% of men making more than $75,000 per year were optimistic, though women’s views didn’t change much with the higher income. The researchers speculate that men may be more likely to benefit from the availability of jobs in the tech sector. Or is there more to it than that?

Maybe guys are picturing hover cars, ubiquitous video screens showing sports events 24/7, and ever more powerful remote controls, while women don’t find these things a turn-on and would be unimpressed with a world of cybernetic personal assistants that double as love-bots. Another survey question found that 59% of women viewed wearable computers as a negative development. Guys were evenly split. Yet both men and women generally felt that the internet has been a good thing for themselves personally, and for society. Perhaps approval hinges on the question of how pervasive and invasive the technology is. An internet that we can call upon whenever we want is great, but being hooked up to it every moment of the day? Not so much. When it comes to information technology, constantly available can also mean constantly demanding. Seventy percent of both men and women said they would not be interested in computer brain implants, even if it improved their memory function. But then, I have to think that people of thirty years ago probably wouldn’t have welcomed the idea of being slaves to their phones either, alerted every time one of their friends enjoys a cat video or posts a new selfie. It’s like a frog in slowly-heated water: with gradual exposure we don’t see the danger until we’re hooked (or cooked!) I expect most future tech developments will make their mark on society almost subversively, marketed as the next must-have consumer purchase.

Most people would probably expect SF fans to be the most optimistic about technology, yet a very great deal of SF paints a dark picture of the future. We’re fascinated with tech, but it’s often a morbid fascination. Would you really want to live in a cyberpunk world? Or do you just get a big kick out of exploring the creepy possibilities?

The truth, of course, is that technology giveth and technology taketh away. Some things become better, some worse. I personally feel that if we can prevent our society from being totally consumed by consumerism (very much I doubt at the moment) we’ll be in a far better position to keep a reign on technology and reap its benefits without selling the farm. We’ll also need to resist the herd mentality, reassert our individuality and our privacy, and constantly be on the lookout for the tech equivalent of magic beans that lead us blithely to a place where giants are eagerly waiting to gobble us up. When a new development opens a new door, let’s constantly be asking if we actually want to go there.

Then our high tech future can truly be a place to be optimistic about.

Tuesday
Apr152014

ASTEROID MINING--POTENTIAL BONANZA OR PIPE DREAM?

At the recent Ad Astra SF convention in Toronto, Canada, I watched a panel discussion about asteroid mining, the problems and potential. I’ve posted about the subject before because it’s one of the major tropes of near-Earth space exploration predictions and stories. So is it really such a sure thing? The panel (including some PhDs, SF writers and a robotics expert) agreed that it will come down to profitability: revenue vs. cost. After all, you don’t go to the trouble of landing on speeding chunks of barren rock for the beautiful scenery.

There have been estimates that, although many asteroids will be mainly nickel-iron rocks, some will be very rich in platinum group metals, and a reasonable-sized one of those could contain far more than all of the known reserves of such ore on Earth. At first glance, that sounds promising. Of course, platinum and its relatives are costly because they’re rare—a sudden increase in the supply would be sure to cause prices to drop, cutting profits that might already be marginal. Especially when a Keck Institute of Space Studies report estimated that the cost of returning a 500 ton asteroid to low Earth orbit for processing would be in the area of $2.6 billion US. I’ve seen other projections that it would require more like $100 billion to create the infrastructure to make a mining operation, especially since a lot of new technology will have to be developed. Could such a venture possibly pay for itself, let alone make attractive profits? Companies like Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries have already declared that they’re in the game, and the people involved are no dummies.

The costliest part of any space venture will be hoisting things up out of Earth’s gravity well into space, and returning things safely to the ground. So space mining may not become cheaper than mining for the same elements here on Earth until all of this planet’s resources are exhausted. If the intention is to return the mined material back here.

But what if the market for the ore you’re mining is out there? Shipping to and from orbital space stations, asteroid facilities, and even moon colonies would be much less costly because of the lower gravity involved. There are also a lot of other materials worth mining for, if your market is a space colony or interplanetary fleet. Water and oxygen for spacecraft fuel and human consumption would be valuable commodities, too, plus many more ordinary metals and non-metals. That certainly increases the potential for space mining, except it still suggests such an industry will have to wait until we make a big push out into space for other reasons, and thereby create the beyond-Earth markets.

One other thing that could possibly tip the balance in favour of space mining is if our current interest in corporate responsibility continues to increase. In the past, mining companies rarely had to factor environmental cleanup into the cost of their operations, but there seems to be a growing taste for making companies protect and rehabilitate the environment from the ravages of their ore removal and processing. If we ever start charging companies a realistic cost for their pollution and for remedial treatment of land and water, that just might raise costs to the point that bringing back ores from near-Earth asteroids becomes a better alternative.

Bottom line? I don’t think SF writers should scratch those grizzled space miner characters out of their stories just yet.

Tuesday
Apr082014

TO REVIVE OR NOT TO REVIVE

No, this isn’t going to be about medical resuscitation in the ER. This week I came across a non profit project called “Revive and Restore”, carried out by The Long Now Foundation. Its stated mission is to “enhance biodiversity through the genetic rescue of endangered and extinct species.” Yup, they promote the idea of reviving extinct species of birds and animals using genetic technology. No, not dinosaurs—no matter what the movies say, there’s never been any viable dino DNA found. But there are good samples of woolly mammoth and passenger pigeon, and lots of others, and living relatives of these species that could conceivably be used as surrogate parents for the cloned offspring. Why do it? According to the Foundation, it’s to increase our planet’s biodiversity and genetic diversity, and to learn more about the processes required for “de-extinction” in order to help preserve endangered species.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault on the Norwegian island of Spitzbergen was created to preserve genetic diversity of plant life. These days, the focus of commercial agriculture on specialized and bio-engineered crops significantly increases the risk of newly-mutated blights and diseases that could wipe out entire crops on an international scale (perhaps even on purpose, from bioterrorism). The seed vault should provide at least some safety net to enable a recovery from such a disaster. A similar collection of DNA from animal and fish species would be a very good idea. The American Museum of Natural History and the U.S. National Park Service already work together to add samples of endangered species from American parks to the Museum’s existing DNA bank. We should be storing samples of each known species’ DNA, adding new ones as they’re discovered and identified.

As an SF author (and therefore an amateur futurist), here’s why I think so.

The World Wildlife Fund suggests that humans may be causing species extinction thousands of times more quickly than the natural extinction rate. And that’s just from things like overhunting, overfishing, and destruction of habitat. Now along comes climate change, with a frightening potential to force human migration because of changing climate patterns. The combination of these factors will be devastating to plant and animal species. And because every organism on our planet is linked to others in complex degrees of dependency, every loss of biodiversity is a threat to the planetary ecosystem. We can’t know how much damage is done when a given species becomes extinct, but we can no longer afford to be complacent about it, or the human race could soon find ourselves alone on a dying rock.

Along with the danger from our own race, Earth continues to be vulnerable to the same things that caused mass extinctions in the past: massive volcanic eruptions, cataclysmic asteroid or comet impacts, deadly gamma ray bursts from dying stars, or exposure to fatal levels of cosmic radiation during flips of the Earth’s magnetic field. We might be able to find ways to survive such things in the short term, but long term survival would depend on restoring at least some of our home planet’s ecosystem.

Then there’s the reason closest to my geeky heart. Although the idea of colonizing other planets and star systems has formidable obstacles stacked against it, I’d still like to believe it will happen.

And we’ll want to bring our friends along.