Sunday, July 26, 2009

Ethics of brainless humans

As a thought experiment, if it were possible, would it be ethical to make humans without brains for research purposes?

The idea arises since a more accurate model of humans for drug testing would be quite helpful. Drugs may work in mice, rats and monkeys but not in humans or in some humans but not others. Human biology is more complex and the detailed pathways and mechanisms are not yet understood.

Of course by definition, a brainless human is not really a human; a human form without a brain would be more equivalent to a test culture of liver cells than a cognitive agent.

Tissue culturing, regenerative medicine and 3D organ printing
The less contentious versions of the idea of growing brainless humans is currently under initial exploration in taking tissue from a human, growing it up in culture and testing drugs or other therapies on it. A further step up is regenerative medicine, producing artificial organs from a person’s cells such as the Wake Forest bladder and Gabor Forgacs 3D organ printing work.

Brain as executive agent may be required
The next steps for testing would be creating systems of interoperating tissue and organs (e.g.; how would this person’s heart and liver respond to this heart drug?) and possibly a complete collection of human biological systems sans brain. One obvious issue is that this might not even work since the brain is obviously a critical component of a human and that a brainless human could not be built, that some sort of executive organizing system like the brain would be needed. Also medical testing would need to include the impact on the brain and the brain’s role and interaction with the other biological systems and the drug.

Ethical but impractical
Where it is quite clear that generating a full living human for research purposes would be unethical, it is hard to argue that generating a brainless human, a complex collection of human biological systems without a brain, which is not really human and does not have consciousness or personhood, would be unethical. Certainly some arguments could be made to the contrary regarding the lack of specific knowledge about consciousness and concepts of personhood, but would seem to be outweighed.

Unlikely to arise
It is extremely unlikely that the situation of manufacturing brainless humans for research purposes would ever arise, first since a lot of testing and therapy may be possible with personalized tissue cultures and regenerative medicine, and informed by genomic and proteomic sequencing. Also, in an eventual era where it might be possible to construct a brainless human or a collection of live interacting tissues and organ systems, it would probably be more expedient to model the whole biological system digitally.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The biomolecular interface and the definition of living

Definitional and classification issues often arise in any field of heightened focus and progress (e.g.; what is a planet?). For the many fields integrating organic and inorganic materials, an interesting issue comes up as to what is the definition of life. Many different gradations of living things are emerging.

Some interesting new cases of living materials are the idea of organic sensors made of biomaterial placed on buildings, self-replicating crystals and biological scaffolding for stem cell grown organs and 3D tissue printing.

De novo materials synthesis
One exciting aspect of the living/non-living classification is the new synthesis of both organic and inorganic materials. Scientists are creating de novo engineered proteins and other biological materials, non-naturally occurring inorganic materials with superior properties using molecular manufacturing techniques and hybrid organic-inorganic materials, with the best of organic and inorganic properties in one object, for example rotaxanes which could be used in quantum computing.

Definition of integration
Not just the definition of what is living arises, but also the definition of the integration of organic and inorganic materials. Alan H. Goldstein proposes that a true integration of organic and inorganic material involves communicating back and forth, not just a system which has properties or components of both organic and inorganic systems.

The future of biomolecular interfaces
The future of biomolecular interfaces is probably a further blurring of the underlying substrates as the focus is more relevantly on the properties and requirements of any challenge at hand.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Ethics of the future: self-copies

Just as the future of science and technology is rife with legal opportunities and psychological study possibilities, so is it with ethical issues. One interesting example is the case of individuals having multiple copies of themselves, either embodied or digital.

1. Can I self-copy?
The first issue is how different societies will set norms and legal standards for having copies. The least offensive first level would be having a backup copy of mindfiles for emergency and archival purposes, much like computer backups at present. People take pictures and videos of their experiences, why not of their minds? The other end of the extreme would be the most liberal societies allowing all manner of digital and embodied copies. The notion of regulating copies brings up an interesting potential precedent, that currently, the creation of children is largely unregulated on a global basis.

2. When and where can I run my self-copy(ies)?
A second issue is, given copies, under what circumstances can and should they be run. A daily backup is quite different from unleashing hundreds of embodied copies of oneself. Physically embodied copies would consume resources just as any other person in the world and there would likely be some stiff initial regulations since national population doubling, trebling or more overnight would not likely be a useful shock to society. Not to mention the difficulty in quickly obtaining and assembling the required resources for a full human copy; despite the potential advances in 3D human tissue and organ home printers by then.

Digital copies is the more obvious opportunity for running self-copies and could be much more challenging to regulate. In the early days, the size and processing requirements of uncompressed mindfiles would likely be so large that a runtime environment would not be readily available on any home machine or network but would rather require a supercomputer.

3. Am I a copy?
A third interesting problem is whether it would be moral for copies to know that they are copies, and the related legal issues regarding memory redaction as explored in Wright's "Golden Age" trilogy. Depending how interaction between originals and copies is organized, it may not matter. Psychologically for the originals and the copies, it may matter a lot. The original may 'own' the copies or the copies may have self-determination rights. In the case of an embodied copy, it is hard not to argue for their full personhood but somehow a digital instance seems to have fewer rights, although it may come to be that shutting down an instance of a digital mind, even with a recent full memory backup and integration, is just as wrong as a physical homicide.

Interesting ethical issues could arise for originals and copies alike as to what to share with the others; should horrifying experiences be edited out as Brin's Kiln People do at times? There would be both benefits and costs to experiencing the death of a self-copy, for example. It would not seem ethical to make self-copies explicitly for scientific research purposes to garner information from their deaths, but it does seem fully ethical to have multiple self-copies for with different life styles, some healthier and some less healthy to investigate a) whether a healthy life style matters and b) to selfishly share exciting experiences from less risk averse copies back with the longer-lived healthier copy.

Indeed in the new medical era of a systemic understanding of health and disease where n=1, what better control examples to have than of yourself! However, epigenetic mutations and post-translational modifications may be much harder to equalize across copies than memories and experiences.

The issue of the definition of life arises as some people may want the abridged meta-message or take-away from experiences, indeed this is one of the great potential benefits of multiple copies, while others may wish to preserve the full resolution of all experiences. The standard could accommodate both, with the summary being the routine information transfer with the detail archived for on-demand access.

4. What can I do with my self-copies?
Societies might like to attempt to establish checks and balances to prevent originals from selling copies of themselves or others into slavery to reap economic benefits, as dystopially portrayed in Ballantyne's "Capacity". Especially in a potential realm of digital minds, there are many potential future challenges with rights determination and enforcement.

The 'AI abdication' defense is the argument that societies that are sufficiently advanced to have the ability to run self-copies would also have other advancements developed and in use such as some sort of consciousness sensor identifying existing and emerging sentient beings and looking after their well-being, a beneficent policing. There are numerous issues with the AI abdication defense, including its unlikely existence from a technical standpoint, whether humans would agree to use such a tool, whether a caregiving AI could be hacked and other issues. However, technology does not advance in a vacuum and society generally matures around technologies so it is likely that some detriment-balancing counter initiatives would exist.

For example, would it be moral to create sub-sentient beings as sex slaves or personal assistants? This may be an improvement over the current situation but is not devoid of moral issues. At some point, as more about consciousness has been characterized and defined, a list of intelligence stratifications and capabilities could be a standard societal tool. Animals, humans and AIs would be included at minimum. A future world with many different levels of sentience seems quite possible.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Next-gen computing for terabase transfer

The single biggest challenge presently facing humanity is the new era of ICT (information and communication technology) required to advance the progress of science and technology. This constitutes more of a grand challenge than do disease, poverty, climate change, etc. because solutions are not immediately clear, and are likely to be more technical than political in nature. The raw capacity in information processing and transfer is required and also the software to drive these processes at higher levels of abstraction to make the information useable and meaningful. The computing and communications industries have been focused on incremental Moore’s Law extensions rather than new paradigms and do not appear to be cognizant of the current needs of science, and particularly the magnitude.

Computational era of science
One trigger for a new ICT era is the shift in the way that science is conducted. The old trial and error lab experimentation has been supplemented with informatics and computational science for characterizing, modeling, simulating, predicting and designing. Life sciences is the most prominent area of science requiring ICT advances, for a variety of purposes including biological process characterization and simulation. Genomics is possibly the field with the most ICT urgency; genomic data is growing at 10x/year vs. Moore’s Law at 1.5x/year for example, however nearly every field of science has progressed to large data sets and computational models.