Radiation Treatment Errors and Bad Design

The New York Times has an excellent investigative report into radiation treatment errors. They tell the story of two patients who died due to errors, and report on the frequency of these events. Sadly the errors usually look preventable in hindsight. And predictably, manufacturers of the machines blame the technicians who operate the machines, when in truth a main cause is bad software design without proper attention to safety and usability practices.

Link: Radiation Offers New Cures, and Ways to do Harm.

The article is the first in a series called The Radiation Boom. This kind of deep reporting is what makes the NYT and organizations like it so valuable.

Michael Sandel on Genetics and Morality

"It is tempting to think that bioengineering our children and ourselves for success in a competitive society is an exercise of freedom. But changing our nature to fit the world, rather than the other way around, is actually the deepest form of disempowerment. It distracts us from reflecting critically on the world. It deadens the impulse to social and political improvement. So I say rather than bioengineer our children and ourselves to fit the world, let's instead create social and political arrangements more hospitable to the gifts and the limitations of the imperfect human beings that we are."

– From the Reith Lectures given earlier this year by Michael Sandel, quoted at Biopolitical Times blog.

Sandel's book about the ethics of genetic engineering just came out in paperback: The Case against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering.

Scientists debate dangers of AI

From the New York Times:

Impressed and alarmed by advances in artificial intelligence, a group of computer scientists is debating whether there should be limits on research that might lead to loss of human control over computer-based systems that carry a growing share of society’s workload, from waging war to chatting with customers on the phone.

Their concern is that further advances could create profound social disruptions and even have dangerous consequences.

examples, the scientists pointed to a number of technologies as diverse
as experimental medical systems that interact with patients to simulate
empathy, and computer worms and viruses that defy extermination and
could thus be said to have reached a “cockroach” stage of machine

While the computer scientists agreed that we are a
long way from Hal, the computer that took over the spaceship in “2001:
A Space Odyssey,” they said there was legitimate concern that
technological progress would transform the work force by destroying a
widening range of jobs, as well as force humans to learn to live with
machines that increasingly copy human behaviors.

The researchers
— leading computer scientists, artificial intelligence researchers and
roboticists who met at the Asilomar Conference Grounds on Monterey Bay
in California — generally discounted the possibility of highly
centralized superintelligences and the idea that intelligence might
spring spontaneously from the Internet. But they agreed that robots
that can kill autonomously are either already here or will be soon.


A report from the conference, which took place in private on Feb. 25, is to be issued later this year. Some attendees discussed the meeting for the first time with other scientists this month and in interviews.

Link: Scientists Worry Machines May Outsmart Man

The Complexities of Dying in a High-Tech Era

I thought this recent Fresh Air interview with Robert Martensen was very good: End of Life Care in America, A Doctor's Diagnosis. Martensen discusses the problem of medical intervention in the very final stages of life.

He has written a book called A Life Worth Living: A Doctor's Reflections on Illness in a High-Tech Era.

From the book description:

Critical illness is a fact of
life. Even those of us who enjoy decades of good health are touched by
it eventually, either in our own lives or in those of our loved ones.
And when this happens, we grapple with serious and often confusing
choices about how best to live with our afflictions.
A Life Worth Living is
a book for people facing these difficult decisions. Robert Martensen, a
physician, historian, and ethicist, draws on decades of experience with
patients and friends to explore the life cycle of serious illness, from
diagnosis to end of life. He connects personal stories with reflections
upon mortality, human agency, and the value of “cutting-edge”
technology in caring for the critically ill. Timely questions emerge:
To what extent should efforts to extend human life be made? What is the
value of nontraditional medical treatment? How has the American
health-care system affected treatment of the critically ill? And
finally, what are our doctors’ responsibilities to us as patients, and
where do those responsibilities end? Using poignant case studies,
Martensen demonstrates how we and our loved ones can maintain dignity
and resilience in the face of life’s most daunting circumstances.

Novelist Jim Harrison's blurb gets to the heart of the matter:

A Life Worth Living is a deeply engaging book. It can be read
as a self-defense manual. In fact it should be read by, say, anyone
over forty-five because we are all destined to do battle with the
medical industrial complex which seems quite confused about helping us
out of life. Martensen, who is both an M.D. and an historian of
medicine, gracefully illumines the problems we all face.” – Jim
Harrison, author of Returning to Earth


Bioethics in the Age of New Media (and Robo-Pets)

I love this cover (the book sounds interesting too). Bioethics in the Age of New Media by Joanna Zylinska, forthcoming in May:

Bioethical dilemmas—including those over genetic
screening, compulsory vaccination, and abortion—have been the subject
of ongoing debates in the media, among the public, and in professional
and academic communities. But the paramount bioethical issue in an age
of digital technology and new media, Joanna Zylinska argues, is the
transformation of the very notion of life. In this provocative book,
Zylinska examines many of the ethical challenges that technology poses
to the allegedly sacrosanct idea of the human. In doing so, she goes
beyond the traditional understanding of bioethics as a matter for moral
philosophy and medicine to propose a new "ethics of life" rooted in the
relationship between the human and the nonhuman (both animals and
machines) that new technology prompts us to develop.

After a detailed discussion of the classical theoretical perspectives
on bioethics, Zylinska describes three cases of "bioethics in action,"
through which the concepts of "the human," "animal," and "life" are
being redefined: the reconfiguration of bodily identity by plastic
surgery in a TV makeover show; the reduction of the body to
two-dimensional genetic code; and the use of biological material in
such examples of "bioart" as Eduardo Kac's infamous fluorescent green

Zylinska addresses ethics from the interdisciplinary perspective of
media and cultural studies, drawing on the writings of thinkers from
Agamben and Foucault to Haraway and Hayles. Taking theoretical
inspiration in particular from the philosophy of alterity as developed
by Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas, and Bernard Stiegler, Zylinska
makes the case for a new nonsystemic, nonhierarchical bioethics that
encompasses the kinship of humans, animals, and machines.

The cover reminds me of this (Artificial Intelligence: A Beginner's Guide by Blay Whitby). I wonder how many other robo-pet book covers there are.


One more (yes, I'm a bit too obsessed with book design): Introducing Artificial Intelligence by Henry Brighton.


Polity’s Digital Media and Society Series

Dms1Dms2I'd seen a couple of these books before but didn't realize they were part of a series. All 8 books sound excellent. Here is the blurb for the recently published Search Engine Society by Alexander Halavais:

Search engines have become a key part of our everyday lives. Yet
while much has been written about how to use search engines and how
they can be improved, there has been comparatively little exploration
of what the social and cultural effects might be. Like all
technologies, search engines exist within a larger political, cultural,
and economic environment. This volume aims to redress this balance and
to address crucial questions such as:

  • How have search engines changed the way we organize our thoughts about the world, and how we work?
  • What are the 'search engine wars', what do they portend for the future of search, and who wins or loses?
  • To
    what extent does political control of search engines, or the political
    influence of search engines, affect how they are used, misused, and
  • Does the search engine help shape our identities and interactions with others, and what implications does this have for privacy?

members of the information society must understand the social contexts
in which search engines have been developed, what that development says
about us as a society, and the role of the search engine in the global
information environment. This book provides the perfect starting point.

Link: Digital Media and Society. The site also has a blog and some links to resources and course syllabi.

Synthetic Biology Debate

If you're in the San Francisco area you might want to check out this upcoming Synthetic Biology debate with Drew Endy and Jim Thomas. It takes place Monday November 17th and is sponsored by the Long Now foundation. Here is their description:

Bioengineer Drew Endy is the leading enabler of open-source
biotechnology. Technology activist Jim Thomas is the leading critic of
biotech, based with ETC Group in Ottawa.

Biology includes the broad redefinition and expansion of biotechnology,
with the ultimate goals of being able to design and build engineered
biological systems that process information, manipulate chemicals,
fabricate materials and structures, produce energy, provide food, and
maintain and enhance human health and our environment." — Wikipedia.

biology is swarming ahead all over the world, at a self-accelerating
pace far greater than Moore's Law, with a range of impacts far greater
than genetically engineered food crops. Jim Thomas raises the question:
"Is Synthetic Biology reckless or wise from the perspective of 'the
long now?'. I feel the synthetic biology community is driven by
immensely short term assumptions and motivations, and as a result the
medium term prospect for this platform holds both predictable problems
and nasty surprises."

Drew Endy says: "Jim and I have somehow managed to establish a
productive working relationship, and feel that there is now a
once-in-a-generation opportunity to develop the cultural foundations
needed to support long term and constructive discussions of the issues
existing and emerging with biotechnology—safety, equity, security,
community, and so on."

The point of Long Now debates is not win-lose. The point is public
clarity and deep understanding, leading to action graced with nuance
and built-in adaptivity, with long-term responsibility in mind.

Link: Synthetic Biology Debate (Long Now Seminars About Long-Term Thinking)

Audio and video of the talk will be available at the Long Now site after the event.

The ETC Group has a lot of good material about the issue on their site: ETC Group – Synthetic Biology.

Convergence 08

I just learned about Convergence 08, a two-day event at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA featuring a bunch of futurists and other thinkers on technology. From their buzzword-heavy blurb:

On November 15-16, 2008, the world's most dangerous ideas will collide in Mountain View, California. Convergence08 examines the world-changing possibilities of Nanotech and the life-changing promises of Biotech. It is the premier forum for debate and exploration of Cogtech ethics, and ground zero of the past and future Infotech revolution. Convergence08 is an innovative, lively unconference, the first and only forum dedicated to NBIC (Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno) technologies.

Link: Convergence08.org.

The speaker list includes some heavyweight futurists/technologists like Paul Saffo, Aubrey de Grey and Peter Norvig, and at least one critic, Denise Caruso.

I'm not sure I get the idea of an "unconference" as the main event, though. I thought those were typically free, alternative forums that took place outside big conferences.

Considering long-term ramifications of technologies

The New York Times has a good article today by Cornelia Dean about our growing need (and ill-preparedness) to consider the long-term impact of new technologies, particularly geoengineering and nanotechnology.  Excerpt:

Last year, a private company proposed “fertilizing” parts of the ocean
with iron, in hopes of encouraging carbon-absorbing blooms of plankton.
Meanwhile, researchers elsewhere are talking about injecting chemicals
into the atmosphere, launching sun-reflecting mirrors into stationary
orbit above the earth or taking other steps to reset the thermostat of
a warming planet.

This technology might be useful, even life-saving. But it would
inevitably produce environmental effects impossible to predict and
impossible to undo. So a growing number of experts say it is time for
broad discussion of how and by whom it should be used, or if it should
be tried at all.

Similar questions are being raised about
nanotechnology, robotics and other powerful emerging technologies.
There are even those who suggest humanity should collectively decide to
turn away from some new technologies as inherently dangerous.

“The complexity of newly engineered systems coupled with their
potential impact on lives, the environment, etc., raise a set of
ethical issues that engineers had not been thinking about,” said
William A. Wulf, a computer scientist who until last year headed the
National Academy of Engineering. As one of his official last acts, he
established the Center for Engineering, Ethics, and Society there.

Rachelle Hollander, a philosopher who directs the center, said the new
technologies were so powerful that “our saving grace, our inability to
affect things at a planetary level, is being lost to us,” as
human-induced climate change is demonstrating.

Link: Handle With Care

The Need for a Treaty to Control Human Genetic Engineering

Jamie Metzl has an article in the current issue of Democracy magazine calling for a global treaty, modeled after the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, to manage the risks of human genetic engineering.  Some excerpts:

What would a Genetic Heritage Safeguard Treaty
(GHST), based on the NPT model, look like? Above all, it would require
states possessing greater knowledge in the field to share basic-science
capabilities with others, in exchange for all members agreeing to
common protocols and appropriate regulations (requiring, for example,
the non-inheritability of germline genetic manipulations and the
banning of human reproductive cloning). […]

Although the prospect of human genetic modification
is terrifying to many, it is an emergent reality that holds both
tremendous promise and unimaginable danger for the world community. As
difficult as it will be to establish an international framework for
maximizing the benefits and minimizing the dangers of this
revolutionary advance, the alternative–allowing these capabilities to
emerge unregulated and unchecked–will prove nationally and
internationally destabilizing and dangerous to the future of our
species. This may sound like science fiction, but it is fast on its way
to becoming our reality. America and the world must do far more to
prepare. A Genetic Heritage Safeguard Treaty, modeled after the Nuclear
Non-Proliferation Treaty, can be one important step in the right

Link: Brave New World War (free registration required).

The article was also reprinted by the Center for Genetics and Society (no registration required): Brave New World War.