2014 List


Click the links below to read more about each issue and get links to news stories and other resources.

Predictive policing
The National Institute of Justice defines predictive policing as “taking data from disparate sources, analyzing them and then using the results to anticipate, prevent and respond more effectively to future crime.” Some of these disparate sources include crime maps, traffic camera data, other surveillance footage, and social media network analysis. But at what point does the possibility of a crime require intervention? Should someone be punished for a crime they are likely to commit, based on these sources? Are we required to inform potential victims? How far in advace can we forecast crimes?

Do-it-yourself cyborgs
The company Backyard Brains will release a kit by the end of 2013 called “Robo Roach,” that allows users to “briefly wirelessly control the left/right movement of a cockroach by microstimulation of the antenna nerves.” Claiming that their Robo Roach is “a great way to learn about neural microstimulation, learning, and electronics,” buyers are encouraged to anesthetize and perform surgery on an adult cockroach so electrodes can be glued on to, and grounding wire inserted into, the thorax. The roach’s antennae are then clipped and fitted with electrodes using strong glue. After testing and demonstration of the remote controlled cockroach, the company claims the insect can be “retired,” to spend the rest of its life “eating organic lettuce, playing in toilet paper rolls and work scraps, and raising a family.” The kit is currently sold for $99, is backed by the National Institute of Mental Health, and is marketed as an educational product.
It’s legal to kill a cockroach – so at what point does treatment become unethical? Does turning animals into cyborgs treat animals as “toys” or give us a new appreciation for their complexity (as Backyard Brains claims)?

Data chip implants
From locating lost children to keeping your financial data and medical records handy, we’re about to see a surge in datachip implants. Able to transmit and store data, chips will soon enable us to verify our identities, see if our children have traversed the boundaries (or “hopped the geofences”) we set for them, give paramedics and doctors immediate access to our medical records, allow us to go wallet-free as we pay for our groceries via a handswipe, or even store our educational and employment data for a job interview. But what if the police can use it to track how fast you’re driving or monitor your whereabouts?
We currently use GPS tracking, smartphone apps, radio frequency technology, and temporary tattoos to store and transmit some of this data. VeriChip (now PositiveID) was the first Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved human-implantable microchip back in 2004, so the technology has been around for a while. But the ethical dilemmas and policy issues are just now being discussed.
Can these implants become a mandatory form of ID? How do we protect our privacy from hackers? Can this data be sold to law enforcement or other companies? Does the good outweigh the bad?

The infrastructure (and presumably the technology) exists to create a robot with synthetic skin and artificial intelligence capable of learning owners’ preferences. Perhaps the most interesting part of the “sexbot” phenomenon is that bot prototypes are not limited to sexual uses, but designed to express love and affection and develop a vocabulary suited to the buyer’s interests. Obvious issues that accompany the introduction of such robots include: changing norms and values in human interaction; the possible formation of social bonds or exclusive sexual relationships with robots; sex addiction; transference of expectations from robot relationships to human relationships (including issues of dominance, behavioral expectations, and consent); the further commodification of sex; attachment issues.

Virtual currency
Bitcoins are currently the most popular form of virtual currency. According to its website, Bitcoin is a low-cost way for people to exchange money online, without the interference of banks or any centralized authority. Bitcoins are produced online and can be purchased by anyone. Online business can accept bitcoins as payment or the coins can be converted into dollars, euros, or other currencies. The value of your bitcoin(s) is stored in a heavily encrypted online wallet, from which you can send and receive the currency. However, at the moment, bitcoin is still considered a high-risk investment as the price/value of the coins is not regulated and can fluctuate wildly over short periods of time. While the makers of Bitcoin see it as a revolution of the global economy, there are dozens of ethical and policy issues surrounding this new currency, including: how to tax it, money laundering, the purchase of illegal goods, and hacking into bitcoin wallets. The anonymous nature of bitcoin activity makes transactions very difficult to track.
Bitcoin is not the only virtual currency out there. There is Litecoin (which promises faster transaction times), Primecoin (which “introduces the first scientific computing proof-of-work to cryptocurrency technology”), and Peercoin (which uses a “proof-of-stake/proof-of-work hybrid system for coin generation”), among others.
So what’s the future of a currency that has no worth other than what others are willing to pay for it? Will Bitcoin lead a revolution in currency, or go the way of the Zimbabwean dollar?

“Smart pills” – stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall – are now old tech. Non-invasive brain stimulation techniques, such as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) that uses the principles of electromagnetic induction to focus currents in the brain, are now commercially available for non-medical improvement (such as memory and cognition boosting). Brain stimulation devices are most commonly used in treatment for various neurological and behavioral conditions, but the same technology can be used to enhance the human brain beyond its natural abilities. So far, research shows these techniques to be low-risk. A company called Foc.us is currently selling a transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) headset designed “to increase the plasticity of your brain,” making “synapses fire faster” so customers can improve their gaming skills.
Neurostimulation can be used to boost motor function, improve memory, and even modify behavior. But should it? And at what point do we cross the line? Do we have a responsibility to be the best humans we can be?

Geoengineering is the deliberate large-scale manipulation of environmental processes to combat global warming. It involves two types of processes – carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and Solar Radiation Management (SRM). SRM, the more controversial prospect, is a form of climate modification that reduces the amount of sun hitting the earth’s surface. Sulfate Aerosol Geoengineering (SAG-SRM) would inject the stratosphere with aerosols and could be done at such a reasonable cost ($8 million per year) that it’s possible one nation could take action for the entire planet. Whether used locally or globally, adopting a SAG policy would have long-term and far reaching consequences. One nation’s policy decision could immediately and adversely affect another country’s economic well-being as well as affect human health over both the short and long term. Calls for environmental justice and adopting ethical guidelines have been raised.

Property rights in space
Private companies are reinvigorating human space travel and in return at least one company seeks rights to mine the moon. Why stop with the moon when there’s the possibility of mining planets and other bodies? Asteroids are known to be rich in elements rare on earth such as platinum, iridium, and palladium and it has been estimated that one large metallic asteroid could yield $50 million worth of platinum. Property rights of outer space will increasingly become features in business plans and recently this aspect of Space Law has gained greater attention from legal firms and the American Bar Association. What rights do private companies have to outer space if they provide the primary, or even sole, means to reach it?

Automated law enforcement
Police are already experimenting with robots, both armed and unarmed, and it’s only a matter of time before robots become standard in the surveillance, analysis, and enforcement of crimes. They are never tired, irritable, in need of a break, or biased, but neither are they able to take in the context of any given situation. We know there is future for robotic law enforcement in traffic violations (for example, will your onboard computer simply shut your car down as soon as you start speeding?), but how far will this extend? So far, Iowa City is the only place in the nation that currently mandates that a human be involved at some point in the process of assessing and punishing a crime.
At what point is human instinct and judgment necessary in the enforcement of law or prevention of crimes? Is it most efficient to build a supposedly bias-free system of law that is responsible for determining, adjudicating, and punishing crime?

Human-machine interfaces
Thus far, the main purpose for developing brain-computer interfaces has been to allow amputees and those who suffer from paralysis to mentally control a mobile robot or robotic prosthesis. They have already made possible some remarkable feats, such as partial restoration of hearing in the deaf, direct brain control of a prosthesis, implanting false memories in a rat, and downloading a rat’s memory of how to press a lever to get food and then uploading the memory after the original memory has been chemically destroyed. If this sounds like science fiction, consider that we’ve already moved beyond the interface technology and into nanoscale wiring implanted in synthetic tissue. A joint MIT, Harvard, and Boston Children’s Hospital research team led by Robert Langer, Charles Lieber, and Daniel Kohane developed a technique for growing synthetic biological tissue on a substrate containing biocompatible, nanoscale wires. This announcement came seven weeks after the announcement in London of the first ever successful implantation of a synthetic organ, a fully-functional trachea grown from the patient’s own stem cells, work led by the pioneering researcher, Paolo Macchiarini. And if we can implant wiring, then, in principle, we can turn the body or any part of it into a computer. But while most of us have no problem with prosthetic limbs, even those directly actuated by the brain, nor with pace makers, or cochlear implants, we may feel uncomfortable becoming part machine. At what point does the interface between body and machine dissolve? When we can make our bodies part machine, is it necessary to redefine personhood? Will we all be assimilated?