Saturday, April 10, 2004

Make the possible co-exist with the socially responsible

From Small Times, by Sen. Debra Bowen: I begin to wonder how long it will be before the brain activity creating these words can be transcribed without a keyboard or a laptop as intermediaries. Wouldn't it be cool if the neurons firing in my brain could be captured electronically? But then - what about the guy in the next seat? Will his laptop, cell phone or Blackberry be able to record my thoughts?
I love technology for the sake of technology. As a policy-maker, though, I focus on advances in technology because they can improve people's lives. Nanotechnology is one of the most interesting technological innovations. What role should government play in the creation and deployment of new technologies like nanotech? Scientists, policy-makers and technology users need a process for getting together earlier in the development of new technologies, so issues can be identified before it's expensive and disruptive to make changes. We can and should collaborate to make the possible co-exist with the socially responsible.

Friday, April 09, 2004

Nanbots only 11 Years Away? Yikes

Mike Treder and Chris Phoenix muse in Responsible Nanotechnology article "11 Years Away?" about the likelihood that we will be caught with our regulatory and economic pants down if Drexlerian nanotech is only 11 years away as the recent National Nanotechnology Initiative predicted.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

EU Law on 'Eugenics' Attacks Reproductive Choice and Science

In his Telegraph article "EU Law on Eugenics Attacks Our Freedom," English geneticist Steve Jones argues that a recent clause in the draft of the European Constitution, while appearing noble in intent, is actually a "Trojan horse that will undermine doctors and academics."

Specifically, the constitution's Charter of Fundamental Rights insists on "the prohibition of eugenic practices." Yes, that sounds self-evident, says Jones, "but what do they have in mind? Why is eugenics so high on the agenda?" Essentially, declares Jones, in addition to its anti-science stance, "it is an electorally handy attack on the abortion movement, because giving legal rights to the unborn undermines a woman's right to control her body."

Also commenting on the legislation is fertility expert Robert Winston (who will be debating the future of the human species at the Cheltenham Festival). Winston regards the legislation as a lingering prejudice instigated in part by the Catholic Church (especially in Germany) and mixed with simple ignorance about what science can do.

Jones also reveals an inherent contradiction embedded in the constitution, namely the proclamation that "Scientific research shall be free of constraint." Because of the ambiguousness of the term "eugenics," says Jones, the legislation could easily be used to thwart any kind of medical advance that hints at genetic improvement, and by virtue of this, inhibit scientific progress in general.


Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Robots Shovel Money into Corporate Pockets

Thanks to Marshall Brain over at Robotic Nation for pointing out this op-ed piece by Bob Herbert, "We're More Productive. Who Gets the Money?".
American workers have been remarkably productive in recent years, but they are getting fewer and fewer of the benefits of this increased productivity. While the economy, as measured by the gross domestic product, has been strong for some time now, ordinary workers have gotten little more than the back of the hand from employers who have pocketed an unprecedented share of the cash from this burst of economic growth.

What is happening is nothing short of historic. The American workers' share of the increase in national income since November 2001, the end of the last recession, is the lowest on record. Employers took the money and ran. This is extraordinary, but very few people are talking about it, which tells you something about the hold that corporate interests have on the national conversation.
Bob Herbert is riffing off a report by Andrew Sum at the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University: "The Unprecedented Rising Tide of Corporate Profits and the Simultaneous Ebbing of Labor Compensation - Gainers and Losers from the National Economic Recovery in 2002 and 2003."
This is the first time we've ever had a case where two years into a recovery, corporate profits got a larger share of the growth of national income than labor did. Normally labor gets about 65 percent and corporate profits about 15 to 18 percent. This time profits got 41 percent and labor [meaning all forms of employee compensation, including wages, benefits, salaries and the percentage of payroll taxes paid by employers] got 38 percent...In no other recovery from a post-World War II recession did corporate profits ever account for as much as 20 percent of the growth in national income. And at no time did corporate profits ever increase by a greater amount than labor compensation.

Monday, April 05, 2004

James Galbraith on the Jubilation at the 308,000 jobs | The Bush jobs chasm:
If we average 308,000 new payroll jobs every month from now on, how long will it take to break that June 1999 threshold once again? Answer: Four more years. It wouldn't happen until March 2008.
Of course four more years is just what the Repuglicans want for their medicine of tax cuts for the rich.
If you think this expansion is going to continue at this pace for four more years, in the face of what will soon enough be rising interest rates, huge deficits and the pressure to cut them, a deflating housing bubble and, most of all, the proven indifference of Team Bush to jobs policy, then frankly you haven't been paying attention.

Sunday, April 04, 2004

Henig and Kass on The Quest to Forget

In my forthcoming Citizen Cyborg I propose that a moral sensibility is a necessary constituent of a person's personality if they want to participate as a full citizen of our polity. I propose a set of social policies to encourage empathy and moral reasoning, and that we require evidence that post-humans have a capacity for empathy and moral reasoning before we allow them access to dangerous technologies. Like getting tested before you are allowed to drive a car, and then being obliged to have airbags, insurance and acceptable emissions.

So I take as serious the Kass/PCB argument in Beyond Therapy that posthumans could become morally deficient if we allow people to erase traumatic memories. Suppressing all memory of dis-ease at having caused others pain would make us morally deficient. But in the New York Times piece "The Quest to Forget" today Robin Henig (author of the wonderful review of the normalization of IVF Pandora's Baby) reviews the PCB/Kass argument, and shows that it is an profoundly wrong-headed approach applied to post-traumatic stress disorder:
painful memories, they say, are all part of what makes us who we are, and diminishing them would diminish our humanity.

''Would dulling our memory of terrible things make us too comfortable with the world, unmoved by suffering, wrongdoing or cruelty?'' asks the bioethics council in its report. ''Does not the experience of hard truths -- of the unchosen, the inexplicable, the tragic -- remind us that we can never be fully at home in the world, especially if we are to take seriously the reality of human evil?'' The council also asked whether the blunting of our recollections of ''shameful, fearful and hateful things'' might also blunt our memories of the most wondrous parts of our lives. ''Can we become numb to life's sharpest arrows without becoming numb to its greatest joys?''

Still, to scientists who study memory, there is nothing beneficial, for either individuals or for society, about debilitating, unbidden memories of combat, rape or acts of terrorism. ''Going through difficult experiences is what life is all about; it's not all honey and roses,'' said Eric Kandel, a professor of psychiatry and physiology at Columbia University. ''But some experiences are different. When society asks a soldier to go through battle to protect our country, for instance, then society has a responsibility to help that soldier get through the aftermath of having seen the horrors of war.''

Of course, post-battlefield remorse serves as a check on our militaristic tendencies. Vietnam veterans haunted by memories of combat were among the most forceful opponents of the war after their return home. But have we the right to buy a surrogate conscience at the cost of thousands of ruined lives? If we have the responsibility to treat veterans' physical wounds, don't we also have a responsibility to ease their psychic suffering?

The human condition remains rich and complicated even without that psychic pain, said William May, an emeritus professor of ethics at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and a former member of the President's Council on Bioethics. ''Perhaps just as dangerous as writing out memory,'' May said at the same council session at which Dresser spoke, ''is the reliving of a past event that is so wincing in memory that one engages in a kind of suffering all over again, which is unproductive of a future.'' Remorse can be ''unavailing,'' he said, and can leave a person stuck ceaselessly in the past.

Without witnessing the torment of unremitting post-traumatic stress disorder, it is easy to exaggerate the benefits of holding on to bitter memories. But a person crippled by memories is a diminished person; there is nothing ennobling about it. If we as a society decide it's better to keep people locked in their anguish because of some idealized view of what it means to be human, we might be revealing ourselves to be a society with a twisted notion of what being human really means.