Tag Archives: ethics

Transgender pregnancy

Here’s another bioethics question that’s probably no less contentious than the deaf baby issue. Thomas Beattie is legally married to a woman called Nancy. Nothing unusual there; what’s unusual is that Thomas is transgender – he’s now legally counted as a man, but was previously female. So far, so good.

Now the tricky bit – Thomas is pregnant.

“Sterilization is not a requirement for sex reassignment, so I decided to have chest reconstruction and testosterone therapy but kept my reproductive rights. Wanting to have a biological child is neither a male nor female desire, but a human desire.”

In this instance, I find my own attitudes very clear cut – I have no problems with this at all. But I imagine the anti-gay-marriage crowd will be pretty upset about it, which brings us to a question familiar to transhumanist thinkers and readers of feminist science fiction alike – is “gender” a function of genetics, of psychology or of society? [via BoingBoing]

Ethics and embryology – should deaf parents be allowed to choose a deaf child?

So, riddle me this: a deaf couple want a second child, and because of the woman’s age they’ll probably need to use in-vitro fertilisation techniques. No problem so far … until you find that the parents want to be able to select for a deaf child, and the UK government’s recent embryology bill will not allow them to do so.

This is a textbook ethical dilemma, but it’s the sort of thing that advances in reproductive technology and genetic engineering are going to make more commonplace. I find myself (unusually) wanting to side with the government on this one – but then I’m not a parent, and I imagine that changes your perspective quite severely.

I’ve sat here at the keyboard for about half an hour trying to formulate an argument for either side, but I can’t find anywhere I’m entirely comfortable – what do you think?

Ethics of synthetic biology

There was a great segment on NPR’s Science Friday last, well, Friday.  It dealt with the potential pitfalls of synthetic biology – a brand new field most recently brought into the headlines by Craig Venter’s creation of synthetic bacterial DNA.  The topics ranged widely, from cheap sci-fi thriller plot of rogue scientist creates killer virus in lab, to religious throwbacks to Mary Shelley invoking man-plays-God ideas, with several in between.  One of the guests was a bioengineer, the other was an anthropologist, which gave a good mix of insight into the various problems.  And interesting mention was of a machine that could basically print out DNA from a stored library of DNA structures.  A crude form already exists, which prompted me to think of a question that wasn’t tussled with – if we can print up DNA in the future like we print up documents now, will DNA testing go the way of photoshopped graphics, where people could be framed for crimes by printing and planting DNA evidence at crime scenes?

(image from flickr user chekabuje)

Robots evolve ability to lie…and be heroes

Robots feeding There’s been lots of discussion here about how we should treat robots; maybe we need to consider how robots will treat each other–and, potentially, us. (Via Gizmodo.)

Discover Magazine reminds us, in its review of the Top 100 Science Stories of 2007, that Dario Floreano and colleagues at the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology created robots with light sensors, rings of blue light and wheels, placed them in habitats containing both glowing “food patches” that recharged their batteries and patches of “poison” that drained them, and gave them software genes that determined how much they sensed light and how they responded. The first batch were programmed to light up randomly and move randomly when they sensed light. The “genes” of the most successful first-generation robots were then recombined and given to the next generation, with a little random “mutation” thrown in. By the 50th generation, they had robots that would light up to alert other robots when they found food or poison…and in one of the four colonies of robots they created, they had “cheater” robots that would lie and tell other robots that poison was food, while they rolled over to a food patch themselves without signalling at all. Other robots, though, were heroes: they would signal danger when they found the poison and die so other robots could safely obtain food.

Liars and heroes in just 50 generations with just 30 genes. Maybe we really will soon need a robot psychologist a la Isaac Asimov’s character Susan Calvin to figure out why our robots do what they do.

The original research paper, published in Current Biology, is here, and there’s even a movie.

(Image: Laboratory of Intelligent Systems.)

[tags]robots, technology, ethics[/tags]

Rights for robots? Not according to Peter Watts.

blue toy robot I think this is about the third or fourth variation of this story I’ve seen in the last few years, but nonetheless – The Guardian has a brief piece wherein philosopher Nick Bostrom suggests we should be thinking ahead about what rights we will need to grant to our sentient machines.

Which is very well-meant, I suppose. But science fiction author Peter Watts takes a rather different view of the necessity for robotic rights – basically, there isn’t any.

“I’ve got no problems with enslaving machines — even intelligent machines, even intelligent, conscious machines — because as Jeremy Bentham said, the ethical question is not “Can they think?” but “Can they suffer?”* You can’t suffer if you can’t feel pain or anxiety; you can’t be tortured if your own existence is irrelevant to you.

You cannot be thwarted if you have no dreams — and it takes more than a big synapse count to give you any of those things. It takes some process, like natural selection, to wire those synapses into a particular configuration that says not I think therefore I am, but I am and I want to stay that way. We’re the ones building the damn things, after all. Just make sure that we don’t wire them up that way, and we should be able to use and abuse with a clear conscience.”

How about you – are you looking forward to running your Roomba ragged, or planning to kennel your Aibo when you go on holiday? [Image by Plutor]

[tags]robotics, rights, ethics, technology[/tags]