Ethics in the biosciences (Resource)

September 8, 2011
cover of briefing document

The Briefing contains recommendations about useful resources for teaching about various aspects of bioethics

Anyone involved in teaching ethics to bioscience students should get hold of a copy of Ethics in the biosciences: Resources, references and tools for ethics teaching in the biosciences. This is the second Briefing document produced by the UK Centre for Bioscience (the first was on Assessment).

The new booklet includes coverage of the following topics:

    • Teaching ethics
    • Assessing ethics
    • Ethical theory: How are ethical decisions made?
    • The ethics of being a scientist
    • Environmental ethics
    • Issues at the beginning of life
    • Issues at the end of life
    • Genetics and genomes
    • Animal experimentation
    • Transhumanism
    • Ethics and Risk

Each chapter includes a short introduction written by an expert on the topic and then a recommendations of other resources (websites, books, articles, slides, videos, etc) which have proven to be useful in teaching on the subject.

In addition to the online version of the booklet, a number of hard copies have been produced – if you would like one please contact the UK Centre for Bioscience before December 2011 when, unfortunately, their activities will be substantially scaled back.

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An epic journey – Do You Want To Live Forever?

February 12, 2008

The ethics of life extension is an immensely complex topic. It touches on a number of social and political issues, though also philosophical and metaphysical perspectives, and draws us into a consequentialist calculus over the rights of people living now and those of future, unborn generations. A number of these issues are explored in the thought provoking Channel 4 documentary Do You Want To Live Forever?, in which writer and director Christopher Sykes, follows biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey in his quest to be the man that conquers ageing.

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Biogerontologist, Aubrey de Grey (from Do You Want To Live Forever?, Channel 4, February 3rd 2007, 18.35)

In addition to extensive footage with de Grey himself, the programme also features a ‘cast of characters’, from de Grey’s mother Camilla, to award winning physicist Freeman Dyson. In interviewing each of these characters Do You Want To Live Forever? offers a number of different perspectives on the ethics of life-extension research. Although the views of different commentators are spread throughout the 75minute programme, they provide an excellent source of capsule quotes which articulate many of the ethical arguments and issues in the debate around life-extension. Read the rest of this entry »


Genetic testing – Child of our time

January 31, 2008

In 2000, the BBC launched Child of our time, an ambitious experiment to record the lives of twenty-five children over twenty years. The aim was to establish how our genes and the environment combine to make us who we are and shape our personality. Sir Robert Winston (IVF – A child against all odds) the fertility expert and TV personality presents the programmes as they follow a series of newborns from before birth through to adulthood.

BBC Child of our time Homepage

 
BBC ‘Child of our time’ Homepage  

In this post we focus on two segments for the first series of Child of our time.  These are: Series 1 The journey begins (00:22:00 – 00:28:40) and  Series 1 – Birthdays (00:23:00 – 00:24:26).  Both episodes are available online, see bottom of this post for details about how to access them.

This bioethical discussion, focuses on one set of parents, Neil and Gillian Roberts, who decide to be genetically tested for the Angiotensin I converting enzyme (ACE) gene. It has been suggested that certain variants of this gene help increase stamina and efficient use of oxygen, and thus have been linked to success in sporting activities The father, a keen athlete and sportsman, suggests that both he and the future mother be tested for this variant to establish whether their new born might subsequently have a chance of inheriting it. The result (which appears in the ‘Birthdays’ episode) is negative and neither parent has this particular variant. Read the rest of this entry »


Exploiting Genetic Knowledge – Visions of the Future (2)

January 11, 2008

The Biotech Revolution, the second episode of the BBC4 Visions of the Future series, continues to describe ways in which humanity is making a “historic transition from the age of scientific discovery to the age of scientific mastery”. Presenter Michio Kaku suggests that unlocking the basic code of life will allow us to “predetermine the destiny of life itself” and to manipulate it at the most fundamental level (Start-00:02:00).

The programme begins with Kaku having his “medical future rather than history” diagnosed via a series of genetic tests for complex diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s. He describes this as an “owner’s manual” which will enable him to have greater control of his health, and to allow others to perhaps prolong their life by decades (00:02:20-00:06:20 and 00:20:05-00:23: 20). As a scientist, he is eager to discover what secrets his genome may contain however, as a person, he says “wait a minute, this could be a Pandora’s Box… I’m looking at a side of me I have never seen before, a side that has potential medical problems lurking there”.

Some of the issues raised here mirror those found in the ITV1 broadcast The Killer in Me, which illustrated particularly well the anguish associated with having such tests and the way actions could be taken in light of the results. In this programme, in contrast, there is greater emphasis placed on the potential impact on relatives and wider society that may result from taking the tests. “We really want to respect your privacy and the privacy of your relatives” the physician emphasises to Kaku.  Much of the future of this testing, if not the present, relies upon “the last great discovery of the 21st century, the Human Genome Project”.  Kaku believes that this event holds such significance that we will look at the history of medicine in two eras, “before genome and after genome”. “Having unravelled the fundamental code of our biology the stage is set for us to manipulate it” he adds (00:06:25-00:09:20). Read the rest of this entry »


“Masters of intelligence”? – Visions of the Future (1)

December 19, 2007

In this, the first of three episodes, the BBC4 mini-series Visions of The Future examines how some of the scientific advances of the 20th and early-21st century may shape our future. Specifically, presenter Michio Kaku – Professor of physics and co-creator of string field theory – posits that we are on the brink of an “historic transition from the the age of scientific discovery to the age of scientific mastery” (00:01:20). He suggests that having “created artificial intelligence”, “unravelled the molecule of life” and “unlocked the secrets of matter” (all 00:01:03), science of the future will be concerned with more than mere observation of nature. It will be concerned with its mastery.

 

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Thus, while the individual programmes each explore human mastery of one of three key areas (intelligence, DNA and matter), the series as a whole maintains a consistent theme: that though this mastery offers us “unparalleled freedom and opportunities” (00:57:47) it also presents us with “profound challenges and choices” (00:01:46). Kaku refers to “key social issues” that will be raised by future science and technology as topics we must “start to address today” (00:57:59). In the first episode Kaku introduces a number of developments stemming from “ubiquitous computing” (00:06:19), many of which intersect with relatively new areas of debate in bioethics. Ubiquitous computing – or ubiquitous technology – is the view that powerful computer microchips will soon be everywhere. They will be such a taken-for-granted feature of every product we use or buy, that they will become largely unnoticed and invisible. While obvious applications of this include “intelligent” cars and roads, health care monitoring technologies might also become commonplace. For example, Kaku suggests that “wearable computers” (00:07:40) in our clothes will monitor our health from the outside, and that by swallowing an aspirin-sized pill with “the power of a PC and a video camera” (00:08:45) the health of our internal organs might also be continuously assessed.

However, as interviewee Susan Greenfield notes, the biggest changes may come when “ubiquitous technology converges with … the internet” (00:09:11); changes which “raise some rather disturbing questions” (00:18:00). These focus on issues of identity (loss of identity, multiple identities), the preference of virtual social networks over ‘real’ social networks, and the impact upon family life. As Greenfield further comments, current experience with virtual reality worlds like Second Life and online gaming, suggests changes are already taking place in these areas.

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For Kaku, however, it is in AI (artificial intelligence) that “an evolutionary leap that will profoundly challenge the human condition” (00:22:08) is now taking place. While he does describe the types of monitoring technologies noted above as machine intelligences, it is in the move towards intelligent machines that the future lies. It is these machines that raise a number of important questions with respect to the relatively new bioethical area of robot ethics, including:

  • To what extent can machines really be regarded as intelligent? How does this compare to human intelligence? Will humans always be able to tell the difference between a human and an intelligent machine?
  • What types of relationships might humans have with machines, and what principles – ethical or otherwise – might this be based upon?
  • To what extent could (or should) the human form be mechanically enhanced? At what if any point would a mechanically enhanced human cease to be human and become machine?

These questions also intersect with long-standing debates in philosophy and other areas of ethics, and have also been explored in popular science books and TV fiction (see the BioethicsBytes posts on Kevin Warwick’s I, Cyborg and the Cybermen episodes of BBC’s Doctor Who). For example, phenomenologists, epistemologists and AI experts have long debated whether machines will ever display “human level intelligence” (00:29:18) – including such social skills as “getting the joke” (00:37:52) – or whether they will be limited to merely mimicking some aspects of it. Kaku explores this question with commentators and AI researchers like Ray Kurzweil and Rosalind Picard, and focuses on emotion, which he suggests is “critical for higher intelligence” (00:36:58). Current work in ‘affective computing’ is directed towards developing robots with some such capacities, though as technology forecaster Paul Saffo notes, “you’ll know its not really intelligent” (00:35:51).

 

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Similarly, questions around how we might relate to intelligent machines resonate with debates in animal ethics. Kaku notes the tendency to anthropomorphise robots that appear intelligent. He refers to his own Roomba robot, and says of the Japanese robot Asimo “I know Asimo is a machine, but I find myself relating to it as if it were a real person” (00:32:33). This introduces one of the key issues in the new area of robot ethics: at what point might machines come to be seen as ‘persons’ rather than mere ‘things’, and – if this does occur – should they be granted robot rights? (see for example Sawyer. 2007. “Robot Ethics”. Science Magazine, Vol. 318, pp. 1037). Extending this further, Visions of the Future considers what relationship we humans might have with machines whose intelligence greatly exceeded our own. This discussion is predicated on the possibility that intelligent machines might “outgrow human control” (00:40:15), and examines whether this would be based on harmony or conflict. Here the focus is not on how we will treat the machines of the future, but on how they might treat us.

However, as the final sections of this episode of Visions of the Future highlight, the distinction and opposition of the categories ‘human’ and ‘machine’ implied above may have limited relevance in the future. Alongside the drive to create intelligent machines, Kaku notes growing interest in the mechanical enhancement of human intelligence: “as machines become more like humans, humans may become more like machines” (00:43:36). Further, we are asked “precisely how many of our natural body parts could we replace with artificial ones before we begin to loose our sense of being human?” (00:55:27).

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These concerns echo several of the dominant themes in posthumanism: the philosophical trend and cultural movement that both observes and advocates moving beyond a traditional – or classical – modern conception of the nature of humanity. In the form of transhumanism, this approach embraces the notion of ‘upgraded’ human, the cyborg, as the next – inevitable – evolutionary step. In may ways, Visions of the Future functions to outline, both the steps in the posthumanist argument, and it ultimate endpoint. It highlights how technologies currently used for therapeutic purposes could be used to enhance various human capacities (the examples used here are mood, memory and intelligence), however, that those who choose not to take part in this ‘revolution’ will find themselves severely disadvantaged. Paul Saffo notes “all revolutions have winners and losers, this revolution is no exception … the big losers are the people who say they don’t want to get involved. They are the ones who are going to discover that being a little bit out of touch will have some unpleasant consequences” (00:56:39).

Overall this futuristic first episode of the Visions of the Future series sets a tone of expectation – both of the future and the next two episodes. It is engaging and useful, both in its presentation of the science, and the questions it raises regarding the social and ethical implications of ‘the intelligence revolution’.

The first of three episodes of Visions of the Future was first broadcast on BBC4 on November 5th 2007 at 21:00 (TRILT identifier: 00741D95).


More than human? – ‘I, Cyborg’ (Warwick, 2002)

October 30, 2007

Kevin Warwick’s 2002 book I, Cyborg opens with the line “this book is all about me” (pg. vii). For the reader, this appears true in at least two senses. Firstly, its pages detail Warwick’s journey to become professor of cybernetics at Reading University, and explore the origins, ambitions and actualisation of his drive “to become a cyborg” (pg. 1). Secondly, it can also be read as an expression of his belief that science, in this case robotics, should be made accessible to the public “in a straightforward way” (pg. 189) – a sentiment that has led some to accuse him of deliberately courting media attention (see, for example, this article in Wired magazine published in 2000).

I, Cyborg cover photo

While Warwick does address various bioethical issues implicit within his projects (most notably in terms of applying for ethics committee approval for experimental procedures, as on page 156, for example), I, Cyborg‘s primary bioethical utility is as an opportunity to examine in detail how one of the key scientific figures in the area of human-machine interaction sees the future of this technology. Is its use to “upgrade the human form” (pg. 1) a morally legitimate goal; or should cyborg technology be used only in the treatment of disease and disability?

In both bioethics and philosophy of medicine these two uses correspond to the distinction between ‘therapy’ and ‘enhancement’. In I, Cyborg, Warwick does effectively make a distinction of this kind, particularly when distinguishing between his own “projects on two fronts” (pg. 40). However, in Chapter 8, where he catalogues some of the research that informed his second cyborg experiment, the ambiguity implicit in the therapy/enhancement distinction is exposed (this is discussed at length in the accompanying BioethicsBytes Extended Commentary that will shortly appear here).

However, where bioethical debates have centred on the use and validity of the therapy/enhancement distinction as a way to describe a moral boundary between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ research and intervention (for example, where breast reconstruction following mastectomy might be viewed as intrinsically ‘good’, breast enhancement for cosmetic purposes might be more morally questionable), this is largely neglected in Warwick’s book. It may be his ‘post-‘ or ‘trans-humanist’ orientation to the ethics of enhancement that is responsible for this, though it also provides for a different perspective on this issue.

In this way, I, Cyborg provides a rich source of provocative quotes on the ethics and implications of the technological enhancement of humans. These would form a suitable basis for any discussion of this issue. Some key quotes include:

  • “humans will be able to evolve by harnessing the super-intelligence and extra abilities offered by the machines of the future, by joining with them. All this points to the development of a new human species, known in the science-fiction world as ‘cyborgs’.” (pg. 4)
  • “it doesn’t mean that everyone has to become a cyborg. If you are happy with your state as a human then so be it, you can remain as you are. But be warned – just as we humans split from our chimpanzee cousins years ago, so cyborgs will split from humans. Those who remain as humans are likely to become a sub-species. They will, effectively, be the chimpanzees of the future.” (pg. 4)
  • “My own definition of a cyborg is something that is part-animal, part-machine, and whose capabilities are extended beyond normal limits. … it allows for metal upgrades as well as physical upgrades and allows the extension to go beyond the normal limits of either the animal or the machine.” (pg. 61)
  • “As a result of the experiment, I received several communications from companies, government bodies, military and police forces about … what it might mean for the future. Would we as a society want implants like this to be generally available? Who would control the situation? The technology was now available, so such questions had to be raised, rather than just discussed as a mere futuristic concept that might never happen.” (pg. 89)

Finally, in Chapter 17 of I, Cyborg Warwick speculates on what a future populated by (superior) cyborgs and (inferior) humans might look like. What he describes is a global, networked society with deep divisions and huge potential for exploitation, discrimination and abuse. While this might also be said of our contemporary society, Warwick’s vision suggests that in the future the lines of division might be drawn in very different places and with different effects. Though the darker aspects of this chapter resonate with the sentiments of another of Warwick’s popular science books In the Mind of the Machine (1997), and also reflect their author’s provocative style, this epilogue does raise an important question. As Warwick himself suggests: “this really is the crux of the whole moral and ethical dilemma. Using implants to help a person with a disability is one thing, but using them to upgrade a perfectly healthy individual is something else” (pg. 293). For posthumanists, as Warwick appears to be, the “ultimate upgrade” (The Rise of the Cybermen, Doctor Who series 2, 2006. [TV]. BBC1, 13th May 2006. time in: 00:24:15) is something to be desired. However, for the rest of us, is Warwick’s future one we really want to inhabit?

I, Cyborg was written by Kevin Warwick, and published in the UK in 2002 by Century, London. ISBN: 0712669884.


“The ultimate upgrade” – Doctor Who & the Cybermen (parts 1 & 2)

September 20, 2007

In a two part episode concerning the Doctor’s encounter with the Cybermen, The Rise of the Cybermen and The Age of Steel rehearse a number of important bioethical issues regarding the feasibility and acceptability of “the ultimate upgrade” (00:24:15) – that is, the downloading and/or replicating of characteristics and functions of the human brain into a machine.

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John Lumick (The Rise of the Cybermen. BBC, 2006)

In brief, The Rise of the Cybermen and The Age of Steel concern the efforts of John Lumick – a dying cybernetics genius in a parallel world – to prolong his life by downloading or replicating his conciousness in a mechanical body. This is described in terms of “a brain welded to an exoskeleton” (00:00:20). However, Lumick sees the cybermen project as, not only, his way to circumvent the wheelchair we see him in and his immanent death, but also, as the future of the human species – what he refers to as “our greatest step into cyberspace” (00:24:56). In order to secure this future Lumick unleashes the Cybermen on human society where they go about suggesting that “upgrading is compulsory” (00:41:53) and that humans “are inferior and will be reborn as Cybermen” (00:45:01).

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The Cybermen (The Rise of the Cybermen. BBC, 2006)

As the story progresses the slippage and ambiguity in the terms ‘treatment’ and ‘enhancement’ becomes obvious. In The Age of Steel it is noted that “this all started out as a way of prolonging life” (00:07:21), though that the project has now become one which “takes the living and turns them into…machines” (00:04:30). Though this issue of mechanical enhancement of humans, including their effective replacement by super – or post – human cyborgs, is presented negatively in the action and dialogue that ensues, these episodes of Doctor Who do acknowledge the view that this type of extreme augmentation can be seen as the next step up on the evolutionary ladder. Indeed the Cybermen are referred to as a new species and describe themselves “human point two” (The Rise of the Cybermen: 00:41:51).

While both episodes are interesting, though provoking and exciting, it is The Rise of the Cybermen, that provides the best opportunity to explore and elaborate current themes in the bioethics of enhancement, including:

  • the distinction between treatment and enhancement of human beings by mechanical means
  • the boundary and difference between humans and machines
  • the idea and practical use of a hierarchy of ethical values in society
  • and, the interaction between science and regulatory and political structures in technological decision-making

These issues are explored in detail in the BioethicsBytes Extended Commentary that will shortly be available to accompany this post.

The Rise of the Cybermen was first broadcast on BBC1 on May 13th 2006 at 19.00 (TRILT identifier: 0059521F), followed by The Age of Steel on BBC1 on May 20th 2006 at 18.35 (TRILT identifier: 00597007).