The Ethics of Emerging Technologies

Large crowd for the event, which was open to the public.

Large crowd for the event, which was open to the public.

At last night’s International Neuroethics Society public program, we heard from eight speakers on the ethics of emerging technologies, addressing the potential benefits and risks they raise when applied to health care.

Kate Darling, a specialist in human-robot interaction at MIT, talked about her experience with robots and her hopes and concerns for mainstream integration. She opened her presentation with a personal story from 2007, when she became the owner of a baby dinosaur robot, the size of a small cat, that responded to touch. She would often show it off to friends, demonstrating how it cried when she held it upside down. After a while, though, Darling began to notice that it upset her to hear it cry.

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Tomorrow’s World Today: The 2016 International Neuroethics Society Meeting

Guest blog by Moheb Costandi.

am16-square-regearlyIn November, some of the world’s leading bioethicists and neuroscientists will convene in San Diego for the annual meeting of the International Neuroethics Society (INS).

The 2016 meeting marks the tenth anniversary of the INS. In that time, we have seen unprecedented advances in neuroscience and, consequently, a plethora of new technologies developed to further our understanding of the brain, and to fix it when it goes wrong, have emerged.

Even so, our understanding of this complex organ is far from complete. We still know very little about the causes of Alzheimer’s disease, for example, and it is widely believed that the incidence of this debilitating neurodegenerative condition will reach epidemic proportions in the years to come. Similarly, the global burden of mental health issues is expected to grow, and has been projected to affect 15% of the world’s population by the year 2020–disabling more people than AIDS, heart disease, traffic accidents, and wars combined.

Faced with these grim prospects, the U.S., Europe, China, Japan, and other countries have launched, or are set to launch, national large-scale neuroscience initiatives. Leading figures from some of these initiatives will discuss their country’s brain research efforts and the ethical issues they raise in a panel discussion and breakout sessions at the INS meeting.

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Moral Robots: How Close Are We?

world science festival robots
While we have grown accustomed to living and working in a world aided by “smart” devices, there is still a sense of suspicion when we talk about artificial intelligence (AI). Hollywood certainly hasn’t helped, with movies like “The Terminator” and “The Matrix,” but how close are we really to co-existing with autonomous, superintelligent robots?

The robots of today, at least, are not going to take over the world, said cognitive psychologist Gary Marcus one of the panelists at Saturday’s World Science Festival event, “The Moral Math of Robots: Can Life and Death Decisions be Coded?” To assuage any fears right off the bat, he encouraged audience members to watch a bloopers video from a recent DARPA Robotics Challenge. The Terminator, they are not. In fact, their fumbles are kind of endearing.
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Falling Down on the Job

At Rockefeller University, the message from a Brain Awareness Week panel of four that focused on how the media communicates neuroscience and psychiatric disorders was loud and clear: vast improvement is badly needed–and there is little reason to think things will change.

Brain awareness often means delving into complex issues, and the media is programmed for sound bites rather than nuance, was the consensus. Maia Szalavitz, an author and contributor to Time‘s Healthland, made the not-so-uplifting point that understaffed magazines and newspapers in a downsizing print industry often assign a single writer to cover several stories a day. This can translate into over simplification, shoddy reporting, and inferior sources when matters of the brain are addressed.

Neuro-oncologist and Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives member Robert B. Darnell, M.D., Ph.D., is troubled by the media’s need to “dumb down” neuroscience concepts to “a seventh-grade reading level,” which too often translates to inaccuracies or misleading stories. Darnell, who is president and scientific director of the New York Genome Center, believes he and other scientists have an obligation to explain their work, but “science can be extremely complicated, and at times it’s difficult and inappropriate to simplify the science beyond what is a reasonable representation,” he said. Darnell also feels that since we are now capable of detecting the probability of future diseases and disorders through gene sequencing in children, the media needs to better tell the cost/benefits and ethical side of the story. Enormous implications are at stake, he believes.

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Neuroscience and Law: Promise and Perils

On Tuesday, April 16, neuroethics enthusiasts can attend a mini-symposium in San Francisco, “Neuroscience and Law: Promise and Perils.” Hosted by the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, and part of its annual meeting (April 13-16), this session includes four talks that address “recent and exciting developments at the intersection of cognitive neuroscience and law.” Two of the talks will be given by Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives members B.J. Casey, Ph.D., and Martha Farah, Ph.D.

Dr. Casey, director of Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University will speak about the legal implications of our increasing understanding of adolescent decision-making and risk-taking. She discussed her research on this topic in a recent Dana Foundation briefing paper, “A Delicate Balance: Risks, Rewards, and the Adolescent Brain.”

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