August 21, 2011

Michelle Hutchinson: Creating Non-Human People

Great article by Michelle Hutichinson over at Practical Ethics: Creating Non-Human People. Blurb:
John Locke thought that what it meant to be a person was to be rational and to have a continuous stream of consciousness. In theory, an animal of any type could be a person. In that case, if we induced in a non-human primate enough awareness and human-like behaviour they would be a person. What would be problematic about doing so? One possible answer is that it might not be possible to tell when a primate became a person. However, that doesn’t sound like a compelling reason against a modifying a primate in a way which makes them more like a person. We could decide whether it is worse to treat a person as if they weren’t a person or vice versa, and then err on the side of caution in our treatment of the resulting animals. In that case, it might not matter whether we knew precisely which were people and which were not.

However, perhaps the writers of the report were not worried about the uncertain status of the non-human primates, but about the fact that whether they were in fact people, or just close to being people, it would be wrong to test on them. If that is the case, it’s experimenting on these animals which should be illegal, not producing them.

While no reason has yet been found to think that modifying non-human primates such that they are people is in itself wrong, various bad consequences might ensue. The awareness they gained might allow them to realise that they have been exploited, or increase their suffering in some other way (particularly if they were kept confined in the research facility). On the other hand, we usually think that our lives are greatly enriched by the awareness and understanding we have of the world around us, so perhaps theirs would be too.

August 19, 2011

On the pernicious de-radicalization of the radical future

Over the past several years a good number of "futurists" and all-out naysayers have systematically worked to undermine and dismiss the potential for radical change to occur in the not-too-distant future. A number of commentators—including some of my colleagues at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies—have openly rejected the potential for paradigmatic changes to occur. While I've always been more a fan of concepts than time-lines, there is little doubt in my mind that a number of disruptive technologies that have been predicted over the past few decades will eventually come to fruition.

But it's suddenly become very fashionable to poo-poo or sweep-aside the pending impacts of such things as the looming robotics and manufacturing revolutions, the rise of super AI, radical life extension, or the migration of humans to postbiological form. My best guesses as to why include the arrogance of the now (i.e. "we currently live at the most special of times and things will never change too significantly"), distraction (i.e. "there are other more important issues that require our attention"), fear of looking silly or losing credibility, denial, weak imaginations, and just plain ignorance.

As David Deutsch notes in his latest book, The Beginning of Infinity, humans are a remarkable species in that they serve as universal constructors. So long as the laws of physics are honoured and the requisite amounts of resources are provided, the space of all possible inventions remains massively large and profound. As for the denialism that has suddenly crept into futurist circles, the burden of proof is shifting increasingly to them; the naysayers need to explain exactly how it is that we'll never come to develop these technologies—and how their presence won't change the fabric of life and the human condition itself.

A number of scientists, engineers and futurists have dedicated their careers to predicting technological possibilities and their resultant social ramifications. With names like Eric Drexler, Robert Freitas, Aubrey de Grey, Gregory Stock, Ray Kurzweil, and Nick Bostrom, these predictions are coming from heavy-hitting thinkers; this ain't your father's Popular Science "flying car" style futurism. And in many cases, the further we progress into the future, the more credible these claims are appearing to be.

Here's a quick overview of what's been predicted—developments that will forever alter what we currently think of as normalcy and the human condition:
So, just keep on thinking that the future is going to be more of the same.

August 14, 2011

Slate reviews 'Planet of the Apes'-style research into brain boosting

James Hughes, the executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, is featured in Slate's article, Think Faster: A review of the Rise of the Planet of the Apes-style research into brain boosting:
In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, James Franco plays a scientist who discovers a genetic engineering treatment, delivered via virus, that prompts the brain to repair itself in the sick and boosts brain power beyond base line in the healthy (at least, in healthy apes). In the real world, though, that sort of therapy is still relegated to mouse experimentation. According to James Hughes, the executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, genetic therapy is still a field with more promise than successes. It can be dangerous, as is portrayed in the Apes prequel: In 1999, Jesse Gelsinger, an 18-year-old who suffered from a rare metabolic disorder, died as a result of a gene-therapy trial, and the field is still grappling with that failure.

Brain-computer interfaces, such as implants or "hook-ups," represent an alternative path for neuroenhancement. Linking your brain to a computer chip may conjure up sci-fi nightmares of a USB slot behind your ear, but it's not quite that far-fetched: Technically, the cochlear implants that allow some hearing-impaired or deaf people to hear in a limited fashion are brain-computer interfaces, as Greely points out. But Hughes speculates that brain-computer interfaces for better cognitive skills are probably at least 30 or 40 years out. "Even if we don't have nanobots in your head, we might have simpler ways of, and perhaps noninvasive ways, of hooking the brain up to external media and doing things we can't quite imagine yet," he says.

So any blockbuster neuroenhancer is still in the lab, or just a twinkle in a scientist's eye, at the moment. But those in the field are already preparing for the ethical and societal ramifications. Some, like Greely, urge the public—and physicians—not to be too squeamish about giving healthy brains a little boost. "In a world in which human work spans and life spans are increasing, cognitive enhancement tools—including the pharmacological—will be increasingly useful for improve quality of life and extended work productivity, as well as to stave off normal pathological age-related cognitive declines," he and colleagues argued in a 2008 Nature commentary.

Wired's unethical experiments: The Ape Man

Wired recently published an article titled, "Seven Creepy Experiments That Could Teach Us So Much (If They Weren’t So Wrong)." Among their picks is the creation of an "ape man" that would come about through cross-breeding a human with a chimpanzee:
The premise:
The great biologist Stephen Jay Gould called it “the most potentially interesting and ethically unacceptable experiment I can imagine.” The idea? Mating a human with a chimp. His interest in this monstrosity grew out of his work with snails, closely related species of which can display wide variation in shell architecture. Gould attributed this diversity to a few master genes, which turn on and off the shared genes responsible for constructing the shells. Perhaps, he speculated, the large visible differences between humans and apes were also a factor of developmental timing. He pointed out that adult humans have physical traits, such as larger craniums and wide-set eyes, that resemble infant chimpanzees, a phenomenon known as neoteny—the retention of juvenile traits in adults. Gould theorized that over the course of evolution, a tendency toward neoteny might have helped give rise to human beings. By watching the development of a half-human, half-chimp, researchers could explore this theory in a firsthand (and truly creepy) way.

How it works:
It would probably be frighteningly easy: The same techniques used for in vitro fertilization would likely yield a viable hybrid human-chimp embryo. (Researchers have already spanned a comparable genetic gap in breeding a rhesus monkey with a baboon.) Chimps have 24 pairs of chromosomes, and humans 23, but this is not an absolute barrier to breeding. The offspring would likely have an odd number of chromosomes, though, which might make them unable to reproduce themselves. As for the gestation and birth, it could be done the natural way. Chimpanzees are born slightly smaller than humans, on average—around 4 pounds—and so comparative anatomy would argue for growing the embryo in a human uterus.

The payoff:
Gould’s idea about neoteny remains controversial, to say the least. “It got a lot of scrutiny and has been disproved in many ways,” says Daniel Lieberman, a Harvard professor of human evolutionary biology. But Alexander Harcourt, professor emeritus of anthropology at UC Davis, regards neoteny as “still a viable concept.” This forbidden experiment would help to resolve that debate and, in a broader sense, illuminate how two species with such similar genomes could be so different. Its outcome would take biologists deep into the origin of the species we care about most: ourselves. Let’s just hope we can find a less disturbing route to get there.

Chimerical performance art

Performance artist Marion Laval-Jeantet has injected herself with horse blood plasma as part of an artistic project called "May the Horse Live in Me" that seeks to explore trans-species relationships. She prepared her body to accept the horse blood plasma by getting injected with different horse immunoglobulins over the course of several months:
These foreign animal antibodies were injected in progressively larger amounts to allow her to build up tolerance in a process that she referred to as “mithridatisation,” after the Persian king of Pontus, Mithridates VI, who supposedly built up an immunity to poison by regularly consuming small doses of it.

Earlier this year, after months of preparation, she was injected with horse blood plasma, which contained the full spectrum of immunoglobulins without provoking an allergic reaction.

As part of the performance piece she also wore a set of stilts with hooves on the end to feel at one with the horse. She walked around with the donor horse in a “communication ritual” before having her hybrid blood extracted and freeze-dried.

She explained to Centre Press that the whole process made her feel “hyperpowerful, hypersensitive and hypernervous.” She added: “I had a feeling of being superhuman. I was not normal in my body. I had all of the emotions of a herbivore. I couldn’t sleep and I felt a little bit like a horse.”

Art Orienté Objet has a long history of working in the bioart space, having created other pieces including Skin Culture, which uses bioengineered skin as a canvas for animal-shaped tattoos.
Check out the video:


August 10, 2011

Nature: "The ethics of using transgenic non-human primates to study what makes us human"

This was published last year: The ethics of using transgenic non-human primates to study what makes us human by Marilyn E. Coors, Jacqueline J. Glover, Eric T. Juengst and James M. Sikela.

A flood of comparative genomic data is resulting in the identification of human lineage-specific (HLS) sequences. As apes are our closest evolutionary relatives, transgenic introduction of HLS sequences into these species has the greatest potential to produce 'humanized' phenotypes and also to illuminate the functions of these sequences. We argue that such transgenic apes would also be more likely than other species to experience harm from such research, which renders such studies ethically unacceptable in apes and justifies regulatory barriers between these species and other non-human primates for HLS transgenic research.

The Atlantic on the science of 'Planet of the Apes'

Very cool article in The Atlanic: The Science of 'Planet of the Apes': Could Simians Get Scary Smart? Excerpt:
...there's some eerie validity to the on-screen science. The technique used to treat Alzheimer’s in Rise, for example, has been tried in labs. Scientists can engineer what amounts to a genetic delivery system—a virus sent out to the brain that infects neurons with desired genetic material. Once the transfer is made, those genes can change or improve cognitive functioning.

This has been done experimentally, says Dr. Lary Walker of Emory’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center. But usually on mice; never on apes. And the results aren’t quite as extraordinary (or quick) as those seen in the movie. “The idea that the next day, they’re going to be Einsteins—or that at any point they’re going to be Einsteins—is not going to happen,” he says.

Like Franco’s character in the film, Walker is an Alzheimer’s researcher. He spent a portion of his 25-year career in the pharmaceutical industry before returning to academia. While he brushes off any comparisons between him and the movie's protagonist, he gives the Rise filmmakers some credit for their nods to reality. "They did their homework," he says. "But when you take it in aggregate, it all tends to fall apart. It had elements of good science, but in the end, it was science fiction with the accent on fiction."
And this:
Nature magazine published a report last year suggesting that non-human primates with sections of human DNA implanted into their genomes at the embryonic stage—through a process called transgenics—might develop enough self-awareness “to appreciate the ways their lives are circumscribed, and to suffer, albeit immeasurably, in the full psychological sense of that term.”

“That’s the ethical concern: that we would produce a creature,” says bioethicist Dr. Marilyn Coors, one of the authors of the Nature report. “If it were cognitively aware, you wouldn’t want to put it in a zoo. What kind of cruelty would that be? You wouldn’t be able to measure the cruelty—or maybe it could tell you. I don’t know.”

Although Walker doesn’t know of anyone doing research to enhance cognitive function in apes, and Coors knows of no transgenic apes, Coors points out that scientists theoretically have the technical capability to produce them.

August 9, 2011

“Careful. Human no like smart ape.” Review of Rise of the Planet of the Apes

It’s been a while since I’ve been so excited about a science fiction movie. But can you blame me? Rise of the Planet of the Apes (hereafter abbreviated to ROTPOTA) is the first feature film that I can remember that explicitly addresses a number of topics so near and dear to my heart—namely biotech, transgenics, enhancement, non-human personhood, and animal welfare. Admittedly, I went into the theatre expecting more spectacle than cerebral stimulation, but I'm happy to say the film offers considerable food for thought.

This movie explored two primary themes, one of which is new to the franchise, the other being a staple of the series. Specifically, I'm referring to (1) intelligence augmentation and its empowering and civilizing effects and (2) the ongoing perils of in-group thinking and tribalism.

In terms of the latter theme, ROTPOTA held true to the original 1968 film which largely served as a metaphor for contemporary social ills like racism, bigotry, elitism, class struggle and, of course, animal abuse. What made ROTPOTA particularly fascinating from a stylistic perspective, however, is that it turned the original movie on its head by showing apes being prodded by tasers and locked behind cages—a clever inversion of the original film's clever inversion. This was done quite effectively and it brought about a sense of pathos for the chimps—enhanced or otherwise.

Okay, this is the part where I start to introduce some plot points and spoilers. But don't let that stop you from reading on if you haven't seen the movie—I don't think it'll detract from your experience.

Uplift and away

In ROTPOTA, the reason for animal enhancement is somewhat glossed over; it's a plot device that furthers the story and serves to explain the ascendancy of the apes. It happens because scientists inadvertently augment chimp intelligence while testing out a potential cure for Alzheimer’s disease. It was a kind of happy accident. But as a result, the film never properly addresses the ethics involved. Consequently, the "ought or not" in regards to uplift is never fully articulated or fleshed out. And in this sense the movie feels a bit incomplete.

That said, the underlying commentary about how intelligence can serve as an empowering and emancipatory force was very much at the forefront. The film’s protagonist, the enhanced chimp Ceasar, used his cognitive gifts to overcome his predicament—that being his confinement to an ape shelter in which he was forced back to a primitive existence and abused by both the staff and other chimps.

Indeed, the scenes in the shelter were some of the most poignant, bringing to mind such films as 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Truman Show. Reminiscent of the apes in 2001, Caesar was caught between animal savagery and civilized potential. And like the outer boundaries of the giant studio in The Truman Show, the walls of the sanctuary were a giant illusion that presented a false sense of freedom. Though painted with trees and skyscapes, the walls were a hard boundary, a metaphor for limits, constraints, and oppression. The shelter offered Caesar a glimpse into what life would be like in the natural state—a life filled with mind numbing brutality and devoid of any potential.

It was only until Caesar successfully took charge of his tribe (a classic case of brain over braun), uplifted his primate brethren, and outwitted his detainers that he and the other apes were able to escape. It was intelligence augmentation as a force for liberation. Moreover, Caesar introduced to the pack a kinder, gentler way of being. It was important to him that they work cooperatively in their struggle for freedom and mete out as little violence as possible. In this sense, uplift was portrayed as a force for increased benevolence and enlightenment.

Us and them

In terms of the second primary theme, that of tribalism and prejudice, the film demonstrated the dangers of ‘us and them’ mentalities and how it gives rise to alienation. It was through the exclusion, isolation and exploitation of the chimps that humans caused a sense of in-group tribalism to emerge among them.

Caesar, who was raised by humans, could initially relate to his human family. But as time passed and as he came to understand his situation, he felt more and more unsure about his place and identity. Forced to wear a leash when out in public, Caesar wondered if he was more of a pet than a person. His alienation grew complete after he was abandoned and abused in the draconian ape shelter. No longer willing to relate or even associate with humans, Caesar organized an escape along with the other apes and sought refuge outside the human community in the Redwood Forest.

Indeed, Caesar's hand was largely forced on account of his poor treatment. Tortured, neglected, and ridiculed, he became increasingly radical. The division between the apes and the humans, he believed, was far too inalienable—he had to act. What made this particularly obvious to Caesar was that his human handlers were not just unwilling to recognize and acknowledge his intelligence, but they were clearly threatened by it. As his orangutang comrade indicated through sign language, “Careful. Human no like smart ape.”

Interestingly, I feel that this is a prevailing fear among many of those who oppose animal uplift.  The worry is that humanity could lose its exalted place at the top of the food chain. Creating human-like intelligences would force us to acknowledge the personhood of these animals. We'd have to find a way to live alongside them. Moreover, they may eventually supercede our own abilities, which would pose a potential scenario reminiscent of the original Planet of the Apes story.

But as ROTPOTA suggests, it doesn’t have to be this way. Exclusion and indifference gives rise to tribalism, and when gone too far, it creates radicalism. The ultimate take-away from this movie is that it’s through the abandoning of in- and out-group mentalities that we can strive to minimize these types of situations from occurring.

August 8, 2011

Over 150 human-animal hybrids grown in UK in past three years

Wow, the Daily Mail is reporting that over 150 human-animal hybrids have been grown in UK labs since 2008, the same year the Brits passed the Human Fertilisation Embryology Act allowing for this kind of research. For some reason these transgenic embryos have been produced secretively for the past three years.

Specifically, the scientists produced animal eggs fertilised by a human sperm, ‘cybrids’, in which a human nucleus is implanted into an animal cell, and ‘chimeras’, in which human cells are mixed with animal embryos.

The purpose of the research is to develop embryonic stem cells which can be used to treat a range of incurable illnesses.

It's worth noting that human-animal hybrids are also created in other countries, many of which have little or no regulation.

August 7, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Enhancement

IEET Program Director Kyle Munkittrick interviewed director Rupert Wyatt, and stars Andy Serkis and James Franco, about the ethics of cognitive enhancement and animal uplift in the film Rise of the Planet of the Apes.