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Two ethical dilemmas: one fake, one real - Arvind Narayanan's journal [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

Two ethical dilemmas: one fake, one real [Jan. 10th, 2008|01:30 am]
Arvind Narayanan
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I like to think that I keep an open mind, but sometimes people's opinions stretch the limits of my credulity. There is apparently a "debate" going on about radical life extension, i.e, using biotechnology and other scientific means to dramatically increase average human lifespan. The debate is not about whether such a thing is remotely feasible, mind you—it's about whether radical life extension is desirable. The opponents of this position are essentially arguing for death.

Of course, you'd expect opposition from the usual quarters: without death, where would religion be? But this is a debate among scientists. Diana Schaub's essay is particularly inane:
But how would human relations be affected? How would monogamy fare? It’s not doing great as it is, but could one even imagine the vow “till death do us part” when death might be nine centuries away?
Hold on a second, monogamy is so important that if we can't protect it, we should give up and die? I'm speechless. Note that she is not arguing that we should have the choice not to prolong life and health if the technology should be come available; she is arguing against the technology itself.

For those of us who are not death cultists, let me move on to dilemma #2. This one is far less hypothetical and is rather immediate—I expect that society will grapple with this question within five or ten years.

The voluntary amputation dilemma. If you haven't been following the progress in prosthetic limb technology over the last few years, you can be forgiven. After all, it's not something that affects most people's everyday lives. But you'd be surprised, perhaps shocked, at how far things have come.

In many track-and-field events, participants with artificial feet perform almost as good as those with natural body parts. Very soon, organizers will have to make decisions on whether to allow prostheses in regular competitions. That's a big dilemma right there, but hang on.

Huge improvements have also been made in building myoelectric arms—prostheses that sense and interpret nerve signals in the microvolt range to make appropriate arm movements. This short video showcases the dexterity and functionality of a recently developed, amazingly advanced arm.

What does the future hold? Evolution took millions of years to make our limbs as good as they are; technology moves slightly faster. In five years, expect prosthetic feet to have far surpassed natural feet for most athletic purposes. With prosthetic arms, the possibilities are endless—bone-crushing grip strength, your weapon of choice built into the arm, typing at the speed of thought, and so on.

Some people with healthy limbs will inevitably want to replace them with prostheses. Are we going to try to stop that?

Let me make a few things clear, in case they aren't obvious. First, the technology is wonderful, it has already made such a huge difference to so many people's lives and will continue to make an even bigger change. It would be madness to even suggest that we shouldn't develop better-than-natural prostheses.

Second, it will be a very, very small fraction of people who will opt for voluntary amputation. I'm not suggesting that the average person would do so, just because it would give them a competitive advantage. But even if a hundredth of a percent of people do, that's still a huge number, and it puts some pressure on people whose jobs involve physical skill and who find themselves handily outperformed.

One might hope that no one would be crazy enough to cut off a limb. But that is a naïve hope, and there is much to suggest otherwise even in our current society. Pro-wrestlers have seven times the mortality rate of the general population. They know what they're getting into, yet choose to pump themselves full of steroids. Jihadists of the extreme variety would need little convincing to get artificial arms if it will help them fight better. Someone who is desperately in need of money would probably also be easily tipped over the edge.

My own position is clear: I am under all circumstances opposed to interfering with the individual's right to self-determination. I'm afraid that society as a whole is a lot less laissez-faire. Governments will obviously try to ban voluntary amputation, because governments like to ban things. It legitimizes their existence. This will make the problem worse by pushing it into the black market, but will do little to actually stop it: the cost of even advanced prosthetic limbs is projected to fall dramatically into the hundreds, perhaps tens of dollars.

The fundamental problem with either judicial or social solutions is that you can never tell for sure if an amputee suffered an accident or if they chose their destiny. Anyone can come up with a story. Oddly enough, there is hope in technology: perhaps the relentless march of automation will progress fast enough that in a decade or two, there will be virtually no jobs left that require manual labor. If the fruits of these advances reach the third world, that will take away most of the incentive for voluntary amputation.

[User Picture]From: forvrkate
2008-01-10 03:09 pm (UTC)
A significantly extended life span leads to interesting possibilities in space travel. In 100 years, we can't get very far. In 900 years, we might have a shot.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2008-01-10 03:50 pm (UTC)
that's a good point. what would be real sweet, though is if we could cryo-preserve bodies. that would also avoid the boredom of space travel!
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[User Picture]From: rfc9000
2008-01-10 04:48 pm (UTC)
or if we could increase the commute-time
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2008-01-10 05:01 pm (UTC)

presuming you meant decrease, i'm sure travel times are going to go down dramatically once we become a spacefaring civilization. the speed-of-light barrier is several orders of magnitudes away. i suspect the main problem will not be energy but the fact that at high speeds, collisions with even tiny pieces of space debris could be disastrous to the ship.
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[User Picture]From: rfc9000
2008-01-10 05:18 pm (UTC)
yeah i meant decrease.. mi bad!
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From: fixious
2008-01-11 05:08 am (UTC)
This sounds like a classic sci-fi plot. They may amputate all infants at birth and regulate the careers of individuals by assigning them the appropriate prosthetics, a la Brave New World.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2008-01-11 05:30 am (UTC)
soft sci-fi has a tendency of predicting dystopian or near-dystopian futures and getting it wrong. i suppose it's the only thing that sells; who wants to read about a future in which we are all rich and kind and happy?

and yet human brutality has consistently diminished over the millenia http://www.ted.com/talks/view/id/163 ; female genital mutilation and other forcible body modification practices are a thing of the past, and even forced circumcision is fading gradually. so i doubt there's going to be any forcible amputation in the future.
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From: fixious
2008-01-11 05:52 am (UTC)
Female genital mutilation is not completely a thing of the past, but I mostly agree. Except you're simplifying things -- merely decreasing 'brutality' does not preclude a dystopian future. Most stories are very careful to channel the increasing comforts of society into the cause of the gloom. Also, one man's dream is another's nightmare and everything.

I don't trust Pinker outside linguistics, but maybe I'll get myself to watch the video.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2008-01-11 05:58 am (UTC)
you really should! let me put it this way: almost all the ted talks i've seen so far have been amazing, and this one is no different. actually it's one of the best. it doesn't matter whether you trust pinker or not, the stats speak for themselves.

fgm only persists to the extent that some societies have not yet fallen in line with modern ethical standards, which reinforces my point.
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From: fixious
2008-01-11 06:18 am (UTC)
My point was that the statistics of violence over time has little bearing on how cheery or bleak the future will be.

What are 'modern ethical standards'? Euro-american ethics? UN standards? The standards agreed upon by the most dominant media? And are the standards going to adapt to the future, or will they be enforced as they are because they seem to be working well?
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2008-01-11 06:53 am (UTC)
ah, i tend to forget that i have views on this issue that few people share: i believe that improving moral standards are an automatic and inevitable consequence of wealth and technology, and so western morals are superior to say those of the middle east. be that as it may, i agree that even in my world view, it is quite possible that the future might be dystopian; after all, we might run out of energy and hence wealth.
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[User Picture]From: yhac
2008-01-13 01:08 am (UTC)
On a somewhat related note, this reminds me of an Isaac Asimov Series (a subseries within the robot stories I think). It had to do with humans settled in new planets, with extraordinarily long lives. I don't remember the details -- I think they were called "Spacers" while the humans on earth were called "Rangers"? -- but he did talk about how such long lifetimes might affect marriage(no "until death" vows) , child-rearing(communal?) and even academic collaborations(lower incentive to collaborate since you are more likely to have the time to do it yourself).
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