20100128

Military and Democratic Human Enhancement

In a densely packed piece for CSPO’s Soapbox, Clark Miller makes the case that the military is not the proper agency to spearhead human-enhancement research because “soldiers are not just instruments, and the military has a poor record of allowing its personnel to opt out of dangerous experiments,” and because enhanced humans are (potentially) antithetical to achieved merit, the democratic basis of our society. His proposed solution is a civilian oversight board to provide democratic control of human enhancement technology.

I agree with Miller’s main points, but differ on the specifics. He correctly observes that the military needs are irreconcilable with the Helsinki Declaration on ethical human subject research. Secrecy, hierarchy, and mission focus do not align with protecting the health of subjects, informed consent, or the requirement that “in medical research involving human subjects, the well-being of the individual research subject must take precedence over all other interests.” Yet, this argument does not hold up. On a strict reading of the Helsinki Declaration, all research for the purposes of human enhancement is unethical. War is an inherently dangerous endeavor, and different rules apply in combat than in the civilian sphere. Is there a moral difference between undergoing an enhancement trial, and being ordered to take a fortified strongpoint? The dark past of military medical experiments is a cautionary signal, but not one that necessarily demands the radical step of civilian oversight board.

Miller’s second point about the threat to democracy is more interesting. I agree with him that human enhancement technology potentially undermines core assumptions of western democracy. In America, we have been blessed with a strong sense of the citizen-soldier. Military personnel remain apolitical in the spirit that their service will be appreciated in the tradition of George Washington and Cincinnatus. This tradition has sheltered America from military coup and disaster, but it is predicated on the notion that once the soldier leaves the military, he becomes an ordinary civilian, with no special status other than the respect we accord him of our free will. Military human enhancement draws a clear line between the soldier and citizen, a divide which can only prove hazardous to the historically tranquil relationship between the American state and its military. The democratic consequences of military human enhancement are impossible to predict, but we are right to be fearful of them.

Do we need civilian oversight? We obviously need de-militarized human enhancement, as the early subordination of nuclear power to military needs in the United States, and its current sad status, shows. Human enhancement focused only on military needs would be a tragedy, and the time to avert that is now, in the early days of the field. But I also believe that an approach focused solely on regulating the military is doomed to failure. We need “pull” for civilian human enhancement applications, to create an industry and market capable of every type of innovation. But given the consequences, there should be some kind of oversight and regulation on human enhancement. What kind of regulatory agency can move fast enough to keep up with technology, impartial enough not to get bogged down in the grinding issues of day-to-day politics, and yet remain responsive to the will of the people.

Is human enhancement with democratic control possible, or does human enhancement imply a new form of governance?


20100127

Alan Greenspan Is Very Disappointed In You

I know, I know, I'm a computer science major who has no business blogging about the economy. Besides, the banking collapse was what, a year ago by now ? Thankfully, traffic to this website is light so I can speak (mostly) freely without too much scrutiny.

In summary of the banking crisis and subsequent economic collapse which we are still experiencing, Alan Greenspan states :

"I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organisations, specifically banks and others, were such that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms"

In other words, "I forgot that people will sacrifice the long term financial stability of their companies for short term personal gain". Deregulation places too much faith in the goodness of human nature and assumes that individual economic incentives average together to achieve a global optimum. They do not.

I sat for 10 minutes in Econ101 at CMU and then walked out forever, on account of student comments and the instructor's attitude. I know a stronger man would have studied opposing viewpoints, but the naivete was shocking. Most players in the free market have no idea what kind of fire they are playing with, and once reality dawns, they are too far in and comfortable to find another way of life.

Everything, literally everything, that goes on today is influenced by market forces. There are countless small connections, bridges from profit motivated systems to the architecture of our society. Profit motives, purely selfish motives, influence our government and cultural system in unfathomable ways.

It is possible for even a incorruptible leaders to fall into the trap. It is a problem of global verses local optimization. Well intentioned leaders may freely seek a local optimum, but face impossible opposition ( and failure to get re-elected ) if they try to go uphill for a time in order to seek a global optimization.

Democratic systems can be crippled when a system of economic incentives creates a local minimum, such that all possible paths to change seem to make things worse in some way. It is hard for individuals to trust the state and say, pay higher taxes, since the benefits, if any, are remote. It is hard to get elected if you can't afford to speak to your constituents. It is sad, but money is easily converted into political power, and all attempts to improve this situation are inherently an up-hill battle. ( note that evolution has decided that horizontal gene transfer : sexual reproduction or assimilation of foreign genes, is the best way to escape local minima. How do you breed two governments ? )

Did you know that the prison guard lobby was one of the strongest proponents for tougher sentencing for drugs users ? That's right, there's a group of people for whom economic self interest directly opposes our ability to deal with medical and mental health problems, and actually impairs our ability to secure our streets.

Did you know that the corn lobby keeps sugar import tariffs high so that high fructose corn syrup is artificially cheap ? Fructose is an intrinsically unhealthy sugar, it is much harder for your body to store as glycogen as it would glucose, and so most of it gets stored as fat. The corn farming companies have an economic self interest to promote obesity and diabetes, and perpetuate poverty in counties that would otherwise export cane sugar to the United States.

ENRON had an economic self interest to keep California in the dark.

Around here in Pennsylvania, you can see all sorts of propaganda from the coal mining companies. The coal companies have an economic self interest to keep the rate of cancer high, and destroy the local environment while continuing to contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and contributing very little net income to the local economy besides low paying jobs.

Did you know that there are people out there selling "police brutality insurance" now, that you can buy to cover the cost of lawsuits when your security forces beat up innocent people ? So, somewhere out there... right now, as I type, is a guy sitting behind a desk thinking "how can I sell more police brutality insurance while minimizing the risk of actually having to pay out?". I can only speculate as to the sort of economic incentives this creates. If we are to minimize risk of lawsuits by say... training security forces properly, and properly scaling force to favor life and human rights over paranoia, well, we wouldn't need the insurance in the first place. Its unclear if the sellers of brutality insurance are thinking as deeply as say, health insurance providers, about how to maximize profits. If they are then we have another economic self interest short circuit that allows profit motives to cause the government to act against the interest of its citizens.

Ladies and gentlemen, economic self interest does not lead to an optimal economy. Rational beings acting in self interest screw over and hurt other rational beings. In this democracy, people vote for themselves, without thought for the complex downstream consequences of their choice.

I realize this is a lot of opinion and the issue is far more complex, and less one-sided than I've made them out to be. If you happen to stumble upon this post, and have some good ideas, let me know. If you just want to contradict my statements that's fine too, but it would be good to attempt to reconcile contradictions ( which is not the same thing as compromise ).


20100113

Global Waming: A Scientific Problem?

Few places are being affected more rapidly by global warming than the poles, as my recent cruise to Antarctica, with visual evidence of melting ice sheets and personal stories of retreating glaciers, showed. On the trip, Dr David Drewry, one of the ship lecturer's, gave a presentation on global warming, while a group of scientists from America's Palmer Station fielded loaded questions on climate change. In both cases, I was very impressed with how the scientists fielded the issues, making a clear case for why action has to be taken. However, my dinner table, six very intelligent people with political opinions covering a large spread of the left-right spectrum were not so impressed. Their reasons: "We expected more solutions."

Why were my intelligent dinner companions turning to scientists for a solution for global warming? It seemed to be a combination of faith in technical solutions, and a "you broke it you bought" mentality (since scientists pointed out the existence of global warming, they're also responsible for finding solutions). Of course, the solution to global warming is political, not technical, in as it relates to how people use carbon-emitting technologies. I suspect that the vast amount of literature by scientists on how to stave off global warming has been ignored because it is seen as too 'politically naive' (read: asks people to make sacrifices for the common good), while professional politicians have little creditability, because decades of passing technical issues off to scientists until there is a %110 consensus has left them institutionally unable to legislate in regions of scientific uncertainty, like the exact nature of the effects of global warming.

We always go into the future blind. Global warming won't be solved by a single technical fix, rather by robust support of carbon-free energy sources as a prelude to the creation of world economic system that does not rely on fossil fuels. Lots of wealth will be made and lost in this paradigm shift, and we need to accept that these things are never easy, and that the sooner we start, the less painful it will be. Waiting for the perfect scientific solution is only going to make the problems worse.


20100109

Avatar

Let's cut the preliminaries: Avatar is the most visually stunning movie I have ever seen. It is a feast of lush alien rain forests, lithe bodies, and the pornography of violence. Cameron invented the cinematic space marine in Aliens, he perfected it in Avatar. But this is supposedly a serious blog about science-fiction, what can we say about Avatar as sci-fi?

In that regards, I am disappointed by Avatar's failure to transcend what David Brooks calls the White Messiah fable. Not because the fable is racists or imperialist, but because it is trite, and because it ends the story too soon. The purpose of the Avatar project in the movie was to bridge human and Navi culture, but that bridge inevitably fails. "There is nothing we have that they want," and the unequal negotiations of imperialism end in violence. Two cultures clash, helicopter gunships explode, and the forces of Nature triumph. The hero leaves his human past behind, gets the girl, and lives happily ever after.

A good enough, if stereotypical story, but can there be an agreement between human and Navi, technology and nature? In Cameron's mythology, science is allied with imperialism, Austugine's research program is a smoke screen for further exploitation, intelligence on the next treasure from Pandora. Try as I might, I cannot find a compromise. Technology is a different form on life, once it has been introduced, evolution takes on a faster pace, one in which older, slower systems are at a disadvantage. The complex ecosystem of Pandora is resilient enough to defeat technology, but I doubt it could integrate it.

This may be a lesson for the Navi, contact with what few (if any) remote aborigines are left, and future space exploration, but human civilization is already part of a technosphere. In this sense, preserving "nature" is a doomed project. Instead, our focus should be on designing a new world.