H+ zero-day vulnerabilities, plus cetacean personhood

Paul Raven @ 13-07-2011

Couple of interesting nuggets here; first up is a piece from Richard Yonck at H+ Magazine on the risks inherent to the human body becoming an augmented and extended platform for technologies, which regular readers will recognise as a fugue on one of my favourite themes, Everything Can And Will Be Hacked. Better lock down your superuser privileges, folks…

In coming years, numerous devices and technologies will become available that make all manner of wireless communications possible in or on our bodies. The standards for Body Area Networks (BANs) are being established by the IEEE 802.15.6 task group. These types of devices will create low-power in-body and on-body nodes for a variety of medical and non-medical applications. For instance, medical uses might include vital signs monitoring, glucose monitors and insulin pumps, and prosthetic limbs. Non-medical applications could include life logging, gaming and social networking. Clearly, all of these have the potential for informational and personal security risks. While IEEE 802.15.6 establishes different levels of authentication and encryption for these types of devices, this alone is no guarantee of security. As we’ve seen repeatedly, unanticipated weaknesses in program logic can come to light years after equipment and software are in place. Methods for safely and securely updating these devices will be essential due to the critical nature of what they do. Obviously, a malfunctioning software update for something as critical as an implantable insulin pump could have devastating consequences.

Yonck then riffs on the biotech threat for a while; I’m personally less worried about the existential risk of rogue biohackers releasing lethal plagues, because the very technologies that make that possible are also making it much easier to defeat those sorts of pandemics. (I’m more worried about a nation-state releasing one by mistake, to be honest; there’s precedent, after all.)

Of more interest to me (for an assortment of reasons, not least of which is a novel-scale project that’s been percolating at the back of my brainmeat for some time) is his examination of the senses as equivalent to ‘ports’ in a computer system; those I/O channels are ripe for all sorts of hackery and exploits, and the arrival of augmented reality and brain-machine interfaces will provide incredibly tempting targets, be it for commerce or just for the lulz. Given it’s taken less than a week for the self-referential SEO hucksters and social media gurus douchebags to infest the grouting between the circles of Google+, forewarned is surely forearmed… and early-adopterdom won’t be much of a defence. (As if it ever was.)

Meanwhile, a post at R U Sirius’ new zine ACCELER8OR (which, given its lack of by-line, I assume to be the work of The Man Himself) details the latest batch of research into advanced sentience in cetaceans. We’ve talked about dolphin personhood before, and while my objections to the enshrinement of non-human personhood persist (I think we’re wasting time by trying to get people to acknowledge the rights of higher animals when we’ve still not managed to get everyone to acknowledge the rights of their fellow humans regardless of race, creed or class) it’s still inspiring and fascinating to consider that, after years of looking into space for another sentient species to make contact with, there’s been one swimming around in the oceans all along.

Dovetailing with Yonck’s article above, this piece extrapolates onward to discuss the emancipation of sentient machines. (What if your AI-AR firewall system suddenly started demanding a five-day working week?)

A recent Forbes blog poses a key question on the issue of AI civil rights: if an AI can learn and understand its programming, and possibly even alter the algorithms that control its behavior and purpose, is it really conscious in the same way that humans are? If an AI can be programmed in such a fashion, is it really sentient in the same way that humans are?

Even putting aside the hard question of consciousness, should the hypothetical AIs of mid-century have the same rights as humans?  The ability to vote and own property? Get married? To each other? To humans? Such questions would make the current gay rights controversy look like an episode of “The Brady Bunch.”

Of course, this may all a moot point given the existential risks faced by humanity (for example, nuclear annihilation) as elucidated by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom and others.  Or, our AIs actually do become sentient, self-reprogram themselves, and “20 minutes later,” the technological singularity occurs (as originally conceived by Vernor Vinge).

Give me liberty or give me death? Until an AI or dolphin can communicate this sentiment to us, we can’t prove if they can even conceptualize such concepts as “liberty” or “death.” Nor are dolphins about to take up arms anytime soon even if they wanted to — unless they somehow steal prosthetic hands in a “Day of the Dolphin”-like scenario and go rogue on humanity.

It would be mighty sad were things to come to that… but is anyone else thinking “that would make a brilliant movie”?

What non-human rights are really about

Paul Raven @ 22-03-2011

The issue of basic rights for the higher animals pops up with a certain regularity, especially in transhumanist circles; here’s George Dvorsky responding to some of the more usual objections:

The rights I’m talking about have to do with protections. Nonhuman animals, like humans, should be immune from undue confinement, abuse, experimentation, illicit trafficking, and the threat of unnatural death. And I’m inclined to leave it at that for now.

While these animals may not be as intelligent or knowledgeable as humans, their cognitive and emotional capacities are sophisticated enough to warrant special consideration. These are self-aware and self-reflexive animals. They are cognizant of other minds, exhibit deep emotional responses, and have profound social attachments. That’s not to be taken lightly.

At the same time I acknowledge that there there has to be a realism applied to this issue. Nonhuman animals who qualify as persons cannot participate in society to the same degree that humans can. Thus, they should be considered and treated in the same manner that we do children and the developmentally disabled—which is that they still have rights! We would never experiment upon a 3-year old human child, nor would we force a mentally disabled person to perform in a circus. We believe this because we recognize that these individuals are endowed with (or have the potential for) the sufficient capacities required for personhood. Consequently, we protect them with laws.

For what it’s worth, I’m in agreement with Dvorsky on most of his points here, though I think the biggest roadblock to non-human rights is our incomplete provision of human rights. Until we live in a world where we genuinely treat all human beings – regardless of race, gender, physical or mental ability, attractiveness, intelligence or lack of privilege – as our equals (biological, economic and political), how can we ever hope to extend that parity to creatures whose existence we definitively can’t empathise with on the basis of experience? (Indeed, some of the more extreme animal rights advocates seem far more able to empathise with the suffering of animals than the emotions of their fellow humans, and as such have done their cause far more harm than good.)

I totally agree that we should be looking to protect non-human sentients from exploitation, but attempting to do so before we’ve flattened the human playing field is to put the cart before the horse and then wonder that the cart doesn’t respond to the whip. Look to the plank in one’s own eye, and all that.

The need to breed: reproductive licensing

Paul Raven @ 15-10-2010

Kyle Munkittrick’s at it again over at Discover‘s Science Not Fiction blog, this time raising an ethical question that has intrigued me ever since I encountered it in an assortment of science fiction stories and novels as a teenager: should the right to reproduce be subject to licensing*?

Cue knee-jerk horror and accusations of fascism-by-the-back-door… but Munkittrick makes some points worth considering. First of all, we already have a limited form of licensing with respect to child-rearing: adoption.

If you can have children naturally, you’re free to have as many as you want and basically do what you want with them. The only exceptions are parents so horrible that the state steps in and takes them away. If you can’t or don’t want to have children naturally, then not only do you have to go through the difficult and complex processes of adoption and/or ARTs, you have to be approved to do so. It’s double-damage on the equality front. Our society, it would seem, unconsciously believes “If you’re naturally able to have kids, then it’s OK for you to have kids. But if you aren’t able to naturally have kids, there might be something else wrong with you, and you should be investigated.” That kind of mindset is wrong – your ability to have kids is not an indicator your ability to take care of them.

He goes on to point out that all that’s realistically needed is a test of basic competence, just like you take to get a driving license:

Just as it is reasonable to have a person in charge of a car take a class and a few tests to make sure they’re capable, it is reasonable to have a person who will be in charge of a new life take a few tests to make sure they’re capable. You didn’t have to be Dale Earnhart, Jr. to get your drivers license; you won’t have to be Ward Cleaver to get your parenting license. You had to be able to merge into traffic, parallel park, and negotiate a four way stop; by the same logic, every child deserves a minimally competent parent.

The main problem that I can see is that by setting up a framework intended to screen only for basic competence, you’re leaving a legacy system to the politicians of the future which could be tweaked and adjusted for more fascistic ideological purposes. Not to mention the fact that any bureaucratic system of the complexity required to license parenting in a country the size of the UK would inevitably be highly susceptible to gaming, fraud and bribery…

Ultimately I’m somewhat hesitant to pick sides on this particular issue, despite what seems to me the very logical appeal of the idea; this is because I have no intention of ever having children, and as such I can’t fully understand the incredibly powerful emotional responses that parenthood – and, in some sad cases, the inability to achieve parenthood – engenders in people. How can I deny someone else the right to do something that I’ve never wanted to do?

That said, the logic seems fairly clear to me: surely the worst thing that we could do to any child is allow it to be raised by parents either unwilling or incapable of caring for it properly? As Munkittrick points out, almost anyone can conceive a child, but evidence suggests that not everyone can raise one. So whose rights must take primacy – the right of every human being to reproduce if they’re able and willing, or the right of every child to be raised responsibly? Given that the child doesn’t get a choice about whether it gets born or not, I see it as being the underdog in the equation, and hence more deserving of protection.

Where do you folk stand on this one? Particularly interested in input from parents, would-be or actual.

[ * I feel Julian May’s Galactic Milieu books dealt rather well with this issue, in that she was careful to simply portray such a system in action, warts and all, good and bad, without passing any authorial judgement on its ethical validity. Recommendations of other stories or novels that deal with similar subjects would be most welcome! ]

Amazon trying to bypass publishers, acquire ebook rights direct from writers and agents

Paul Raven @ 05-03-2010

Here’s an interesting new development in the Amazon ebooks scramble – the online retailer is apparently trying to obtain Kindle publishing rights for some older and otherwise unlicensed titles direct from authors or their agents in the UK [via @DamienWalter]:

UK literary agents and authors have been approached directly to sell e-book rights to Amazon as it builds its Kindle e-book arsenal ahead of the UK launch of the iPad. US e-book publishers including Rosetta Books are also approaching UK agents and authors to buy backlist e-book rights, with Rosetta favouring an exclusive Amazon deal as part of the package.


A second UK agent said the approaches were being made by Amazon department Kindle Evangelist. “The way they represent themselves is, ‘We are following this big author, he/she is not available in e-book form, why not, can I do anything to expedite that?’ You may say ‘E-book rights have gone to Random House’, in which case they’ll accept that. But if you say ‘No deal has been done’, they might try to be more proactive—engineer a way to encourage the marriage [with the publisher], or even look to acquire the rights themselves.

That should stir up the kerfuffle again, I’m guessing.

Should we clone Neanderthals?

Paul Raven @ 23-02-2010

It’s another hat-tip to Chairman Bruce for flagging up this thoughtful article on whether or not we should clone Neanderthals from their mapped DNA, though I’ve seen others link it since (slow on the uptake, that’s me). But note the thrust of the question: it’s not can we clone them, but should we? Some real sf-nal thinking going on in here:

Bernard Rollin, a bioethicist and professor of philosophy at Colorado State University, doesn’t believe that creating a Neanderthal clone would be an ethical problem in and of itself. The problem lies in how that individual would be treated by others. “I don’t think it is fair to put people…into a circumstance where they are going to be mocked and possibly feared,” he says, “and this is equally important, it’s not going to have a peer group. Given that humans are at some level social beings, it would be grossly unfair.” The sentiment was echoed by Stringer, “You would be bringing this Neanderthal back into a world it did not belong to….It doesn’t have its home environment anymore.”

There were no cities when the Neanderthals went extinct, and at their population’s peak there may have only been 10,000 of them spread across Europe. A cloned Neanderthal might be missing the genetic adaptations we have evolved to cope with the world’s greater population density, whatever those adaptations might be. But, not everyone agrees that Neanderthals were so different from modern humans that they would automatically be shunned as outcasts.

“I’m convinced that if one were to raise a Neanderthal in a modern human family he would function just like everybody else,” says Trenton Holliday, a paleoanthropologist at Tulane University. “I have no reason to doubt he could speak and do all the things that modern humans do.”

“I think there would be no question that if you cloned a Neanderthal, that individual would be recognized as having human rights under the Constitution and international treaties,” says Lori Andrews, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law. The law does not define what a human being is, but legal scholars are debating questions of human rights in cases involving genetic engineering. “This is a species-altering event,” says Andrews, “it changes the way we are creating a new generation.” How much does a human genome need to be changed before the individual created from it is no longer considered human?

Plenty of food for thought (and fuel for stories) there. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve already read a few stories with cloned and/or back-bred Neanderthals in them – anyone in the audience remember anything similar?

One thing’s for certain – a real Neanderthal would think those New Yorican ‘Paleolithic’ fad-diet hipsters were pretty lame.

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