Should We Be Afraid? A List for 2013

emerg_techIn a recent study, the John J. Reilly Center at University of Notre Dame published a rather list of possible threats that could be seen in the new year. The study, which was called “Emerging Ethical Dilemmas and Policy Issues in Science and Technology” sought to address all the likely threats people might face as a result of all developments and changes made of late, particularly in the fields of medical research, autonomous machines, 3D printing, Climate Change and enhancements.

The list contained eleven articles, presented in random order so people can assess what they think is the most important and vote accordingly. And of course, each one was detailed and sourced so as to ensure people understood the nature of the issue and where the information was obtained. They included:

1. Personalized Medicine:
dna_selfassemblyWithin the last ten years, the creation of fast, low-cost genetic sequencing has given the public direct access to genome sequencing and analysis, with little or no guidance from physicians or genetic counselors on how to process the information. Genetic testing may result in prevention and early detection of diseases and conditions, but may also create a new set of moral, legal, ethical, and policy issues surrounding the use of these tests. These include equal access, privacy, terms of use, accuracy, and the possibility of an age of eugenics.

2. Hacking medical devices:
pacemakerThough no reported incidents have taken place (yet), there is concern that wireless medical devices could prove vulnerable to hacking. The US Government Accountability Office recently released a report warning of this while Barnaby Jack – a hacker and director of embedded device security at IOActive Inc. – demonstrated the vulnerability of a pacemaker by breaching the security of the wireless device from his laptop and reprogramming it to deliver an 830-volt shock. Because many devices are programmed to allow doctors easy access in case reprogramming is necessary in an emergency, the design of many of these devices is not geared toward security.

3. Driverless zipcars:
googlecarIn three states – Nevada, Florida, and California – it is now legal for Google to operate its driverless cars. A human in the vehicle is still required, but not at the controls. Google also plans to marry this idea to the zipcar, fleets of automobiles shared by a group of users on an as-needed basis and sharing in costs. These fully automated zipcars will change the way people travel but also the entire urban/suburban landscape. And once it gets going, ethical questions surrounding access, oversight, legality and safety are naturally likely to emerge.

4. 3-D Printing:
AR-153D printing has astounded many scientists and researchers thanks to the sheer number of possibilities it has created for manufacturing. At the same time, there is concern that some usages might be unethical, illegal, and just plain dangerous. Take for example, recent effort by groups such as Distributed Defense, a group intent on using 3D printers to create “Wiki-weapons”, or the possibility that DNA assembling and bioprinting could yield infectious or dangerous agents.

5. Adaptation to Climate Change:
climatewarsThe effects of climate change are likely to be felt differently by different people’s around the world. Geography plays a role in susceptibility, but a nation’s respective level of development is also intrinsic to how its citizens are likely to adapt. What’s more, we need to address how we intend to manage and manipulate wild species and nature in order to preserve biodiversity.This warrants an ethical discussion, not to mention suggestions of how we will address it when it comes.

6. Counterfeit Pharmaceuticals:
Syringe___Spritze___by_F4U_DraconiXIn developing nations, where life saving drugs are most needed, low-quality and counterfeit pharmaceuticals are extremely common. Detecting such drugs requires the use of expensive equipment which is often unavailable, and expanding trade in pharmaceuticals is giving rise to the need to establish legal measures to combat foreign markets being flooded with cheap or ineffective knock-offs.

7. Autonomous Systems:
X-47BWar machines and other robotic systems are evolving to the point that they can do away with human controllers or oversight. In the coming decades, machines that can perform surgery, carry out airstrikes, diffuse bombs and even conduct research and development are likely to be created, giving rise to a myriad of ethical, safety and existential issues. Debate needs to be fostered on how this will effect us and what steps should be taken to ensure that the outcome is foreseeable and controllable.

8. Human-animal hybrids:
human animal hybrid
Is interspecies research the next frontier in understanding humanity and curing disease, or a slippery slope, rife with ethical dilemmas, toward creating new species? So far, scientists have kept experimentation with human-animal hybrids on the cellular level and have recieved support for their research goals. But to some, even modest experiments involving animal embryos and human stem cells are ethical violation. An examination of the long-term goals and potential consequences is arguably needed.

9. Wireless technology:
vortex-radio-waves-348x196Mobile devices, PDAs and wireless connectivity are having a profound effect in developed nations, with the rate of data usage doubling on an annual basis. As a result, telecommunications and government agencies are under intense pressure to regulate the radio frequency spectrum. The very way government and society does business, communicates, and conducts its most critical missions is changing rapidly. As such, a policy conversation is needed about how to make the most effective use of the precious radio spectrum, and to close the digital access divide for underdeveloped populations.

10. Data collection/privacy:
privacy1With all the data that is being transmitted on a daily basis, the issue of privacy is a major concern that is growing all the time. Considering the amount of personal information a person gives simply to participate in a social network, establish an email account, or install software to their computer, it is no surprise that hacking and identity theft are also major conerns. And now that data storage, microprocessors and cloud computing have become inexpensive and so widespread, a discussion on what kinds of information gathering and how quickly a person should be willing to surrender details about their life needs to be had.

11. Human enhancements:
transhumanismA tremendous amount of progress has been made in recent decades when it comes to prosthetic, neurological, pharmaceutical and therapeutic devices and methods. Naturally, there is warranted concern that progress in these fields will reach past addressing disabilities and restorative measures and venture into the realm of pure enhancement. With the line between biological and artificial being blurred, many are concerned that we may very well be entering into an era where the two are indistinguishable, and where cybernetic, biotechnological and other enhancements lead to a new form of competition where people must alter their bodies in order to maintain their jobs or avoid behind left behind.

Feel scared yet? Well you shouldn’t. The issue here is about remaining informed about possible threats, likely scenarios, and how we as people can address and deal with them now and later. If there’s one thing we should always keep in mind, it is that the future is always in the process of formation. What we do at any given time controls the shape of it and together we are always deciding what kind of world we want to live in. Things only change because all of us, either through action or inaction, allow them to. And if we want things to go a certain way, we need to be prepared to learn all we can about the causes, consequences, and likely outcomes of every scenario.

To view the whole report, follow the link below. And to vote on which issue you think is the most important, click here.


The Future is Here: Information Encoded in DNA!

dna-computingScientists and researchers have been taking a closer look at DNA in recent years, and not just for the reasons you may know if. No, in addition to unlocking the human genome, some are considering DNA as a new means of data storage. When you think about it, DNA is already used as a storage device, specifically for containing all the information necessary to generate millions of species of plants and animals from a single cell. But as it stands, scientists are considering using artificially-generated DNA to handle the the growing storage needs of today’s information society.

In fact, this past Wednesday an international team of researchers led by Nick Goldman of the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) reported that they had managed to successfully store all 154 Shakespeare sonnets, a photo, a scientific paper, and a 26-second sound clip from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech on a sample of DNA so small it was barely discernible to the naked eye and able to fit into a tiny vial.

binaryMight sound like something out of science fiction, but in fact the process is really quite straightforward thanks to existing technology. Marrying elements of cellular biology to computing, the concept calls for converting digital information from binary code (1’s and 0’s) into the four-letter alphabet of DNA code. Once that code is compiled, synthetic strands of DNA are then created which are then “read” by a machine specifically programmed to recover the encoded information.

At present, the reading process took two weeks, but that’s expected to change in coming years. By accomplishing this act of DNA-writ storage, Goldman and his research team was able to show that the process is feasible. And given time, we could be looking at external hard drives that are little more than a tiny thimble full of genetic material, but which are capable of storing terabytes of information. And given that they themselves are composed of genetic material, it might even be possible to store these devices within our own living tissues. Biotechnological implants, people!

DNA-molecule2At the same time, Goldman and Ewan Birney – another member of the European Bioinformatics Institute – released a research paper which explained the potential of this means of data storage. In it, they stated that in the short term, DNA storage will be useful for storing large amounts of information for centuries, like national historical records or huge library holdings, provided it’s not accessed very often. However, they were also quick to point out that with time and development, it could be commercial viable and much more accessible.

biotech_alienThey also took the opportunity to address potential fears and ethical issues, saying that storage in a human being was not something they intended to pursue, and that encoded information would not be able to mix with a person’s normal DNA. According to the report, artificial DNA is specially encoded and therefore unable to combine with natural DNA, which does not use the same “programming language”.

Well… that is good news for those of us worried about a new form of genetic diseases huh, or the possibility that DNA archives could contain viruses capable of infected both our machinery and our bodies! But of course, the paper didn’t rule out that it would be possible to store information inside a person’s body using this new form of “biotechnology”. Once it’s perfected, it might even become the mainstay of consumers to buy bioelectronics that are stored within their very bodies. I mean, if it’s safe and won’t result in a new age of bio warfare, who’s to say it won’t become all the rage?

NJust one question: will this put us several steps closer to creating artificial humanoid AI’s, aka. Cylons? Just asking…