Ethics has a bizarre blind spot around parents and children. For no justifiable reason that I can discern, we deem it perfectly tolerable for a parent to decide unilaterally to raise their child genderless or under the Tiger Mother or laissez-faire method of parenting, but horror at the idea of someone “testing” one of these parental styles on a child. Recall, there is no test to become a parent, no minimum qualification or form of licensing. In fact, if you are so irresponsible as to unintentionally have a child you do not want and cannot support, you have more of a right (and obligation) to rear that child than a stranger with the means and desire to give that child a better life.
We erroneously connect the ability to reproduce with the ability to rear in our social norms and in our laws. As adoption, IVF, sperm/egg donation and surrogate mothers along with new family structures challenge the concept that the person who provides the gametes or womb is also the person who will teach the child to ride a bicycle, we need to investigate the impact of perpetuating the idea that there is a link between reproducing and rearing.
I would like to test this reproduce-rearing correlation with a thought experiment. The details of the thought experiment appear below the fold, but the conclusion is as follows: it would be ethically permissible for a scientist to adopt a large group of children and then perform specific, non-harmful, nature-vs-nurture social experiments on those children. My idea comes from an interview by Charles Q. Choi at Too Hard for Science? with Steven Pinker about just such an experiment:
There is one morally repugnant line of thought Pinker strenuously objects to that could resolve this question. “Basically, every nature-nurture debate could be settled for good if we could raise a group of children in a closed environment of our own design, they way we do with animals,” he says. . .
“The biological basis of sex differences could be tested by dressing babies identically, hiding their sex from the people they interact with, and treating them identically, or better still, dividing them into four groups — boys treated as boys, boys treated as girls, girls treated as girls, girls treated as boys,” he notes. . .
“There’s no end to the ethical horrors that could be raised by this exercise,” Pinker says.
“In the sex-difference experiment, could we emasculate the boys at different ages, including in utero, and do sham operations on the girls as a control?” Pinker asks. “In the language experiment, could we ‘sacrifice’ the children at various ages, to use the common euphemism in animal research, and dissect their brains?”
“This is a line of thought that is morally corrosive even in the contemplation, so your thought experiments can go only so far,” he says.
So let’s test the limits of Pinker’s last line. Ethics is rife with and wrought by horrific thought experiments designed to out our biases and assumptions. And I intend to use a thought experiment to expose our bias that reproductive capacity equals rearing capacity. That is, merely because you can have a kid doesn’t mean you should be allowed to decide how to raise it. Using three scenarios, I’ll prove that a team of scientists adopting a large group of children with the dual intent of raising happy and healthy children while also conducting non-surgical or invasive sociological experiments would be ethically permissible. Read More
While it’s clear that we have a lot going for ourselves right out of the womb, it’s equally clear that one of our most admirable qualities is that we rapidly “get it” – we learn languages, skills for manipulating objects, hip hop dance moves, recipes for coconut mojitos, and how to charm people into liking us (ideally, in that order). Rather than experiential learning like this, early AI work focused on sophisticated reasoning problems. The touchstone for these efforts was Alan Turing’s original effort to mimic the reasoning processes of mathematicians engaged in solving a math problem – an effort that gave us many great things, particularly a distillation of what it means for something to be computable that stands as one of the great intellectual accomplishments of the twentieth century. That form of AI, while successful in particular domains — chess playing and expert systems, for example — has been less successful in solving problems of ongoing embodied activity, such as the aforementioned coconut mojito making. What if, instead of mimicking a mathematician trying to solve a math problem, Alan Turing had decided to mimic a scientist trying to determine the validity of a hypothesis? According to some developmental psychologists, in doing so we’d actually be emulating the reasoning processes of an infant, and thus, potentially, we’d be unlocking the great power of experiential learning.
Having robots with minds implementing the scientific process rather than math problem solving is essentially what’s happening in a few corners of robotics, most recently with the Xpero project, an effort to develop an embodied cognitive system that learns about its world much like an infant would. It’s one of a host of robo-infants being worked on (here’s a nice overview graphic). This approach has led to some very impressive achievements including an “evil starfish” robot that can quickly learn how to control its body after several of its “limbs” have been chopped off.
Think of the most complicated thing you’ve written. Maybe it was a report for your employer, or an essay while in college. It could even be a computer program. Whatever it was, think of all the stuff you packed into it. Now, pause for a moment to imagine creating all that without using a word processor or a paper and pen, or really anything at all to externalize thought to something outside of your head. It seems impossible. What we get with this technology–ancient as it is–is an amplification of our brain power. Besides their gorgeous techy looks, do interactive holographics like that shown in Iron Man 2, reminiscent of interfaces shown in Minority Report, offer up some of the same brain amping?
Christopher Nolan’s Inception is a film about a time when we have the power to enter into each other’s dreams, and actively steer the dream’s course to implant an idea in the dreamer.
The film raises the issue of how much we understand about the neuroscience of dreams. Due to its need for invasive experiments, neuroscience typically works with non-human animals, which raises a significant difficulty: how do you know that a rat is dreaming? You can’t wake it up from REM sleep and ask. (Well, you can, but don’t expect a cogent response.) There’s no accepted objective indicator that a person or animal is having a dream, as opposed to sleeping. But, we can still learn something useful by looking at the neuroscience of sleep.
Athanasius (b. 293) was an ascetic known not only for his piety but—like many ascetics– for his penchant for wearing hairshirts (these were also available as underwear for the truly hard core). Hairshirts are made from goats’ hair, and they are as itchy as they sound, although the true test of your fealty to God was to wear one that was flea infested. Thanks to a new study on the cognitive effects of the feel of everyday objects, we now have some science to help us understand what effect wearing a hairshirt had on the way Athanasius thought. Ackerman, Nocera, and Bargh have discovered that people are more likely to judge an ambiguous passage as difficult and harsh after they have completed a jigsaw-puzzle covered in rough sandpaper, compared to folks who read the same passage after completing the same puzzle that was smooth to the touch. They also explored a few other examples of bleed-through from the way things feel to the way we think. Participants evaluating resumes judged ones that were on heavier clipboards to be better than ones on light clipboards. Sitting on hard chairs versus soft cushioned chairs caused negotiations to be more rigid in character, with less flexibility in a negotiation task.
These are remarkable effects with many potential implications, and applications (next time you’re trying to sell something, make sure you’re seated in a hard chair, and your buyer is in soft chair, for example; and clothes designers have a whole new dimension to consider). What is their underlying basis? The researchers hypothesize that our experiences with touch early in our development provides a scaffold for the development of conceptual knowledge. In adult life, these same touch experiences activate the scaffold in the same way, and lead to unconscious influences on our attitudes and decision making. The experience of weight gets metaphorically associated with seriousness and importance. Idioms like “that’s heavy” reflect this association. Similarly, rough textures get associated with difficulty, and we say “having a rough day.”
First, I want to assure anyone who’s not been to New York City that Grand Central station is never as empty as it was in Tuesday’s episode of Fringe. I’ve been there at 4 a.m., and even then, I’ve never been alone on the platform. I know it was a dream sequence, but I thought you should know.
Moving on (and spoilers below). Read More
City of Ember opened on Friday, a beautifully visualized adaption of the book of (almost) the same name. The eponymous city is actually the ultimate bunker, a settlement located in a vast underground cavern and designed to sustain a community for 200 years following the apocalypse. Unfortunately, more than 200 years have passed and the systems that sustain the city are beginning to break down, most notably the giant generator that is the sole source of electricity. This is a particular problem as the inhabitants are sealed in, with no memory of any existence beyond the boundaries of the city. The exit instructions eventually fall into the hands of two youngsters who must battle social inertia and a corrupt mayor to escape the coming darkness.
The ignorance of the population is actually the result of a deliberate decision by the city’s builders. In order to keep the population tucked safely away for 200 years, the builders decided to remove the temptation of the surface world by excluding any record of its existence–and to make sure curious inhabitants stay within the cavern, technologies such as batteries and candles are excluded as well, literally tethering would-be explorers to a power outlet.