GMO mosquitoes January 28, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV203 , comments closed
The Malaysian Institute of Medical Research has concluded an experiment in which 6000 genetically modified mosquitoes were released into the wild. The male mosquitoes were engineered to be able to mate with wild females but to be unable to produce offspring. They take mating opportunities away from fertile males, thus producing a drop in the local mosquito population. With fewer mosquitoes around, it is hoped that the incidence of dengue fever, which can result from mosquito bites, would be significantly reduced. Results of the experiment await analysis.
(Image courtesy of USDA via Wikimedia Commons.)
The scheme is somewhat controversial because it was carried out without much in the way of prior consultation with the local population:
“I am surprised that they did this without prior announcement given the high level of concerns raised not just from the NGOs but also scientists and the local residents,” said Third World Network researcher, Lim Li Ching. “We don’t agree with this trial that has been conducted in such an untransparent way. There are many questions and not enough research has been done on the full consequences of this experiment.”
A very similar incident came to light recently in the Grand Cayman Island. British biotech firm Oxitec released GM mosquitoes on the Island in 2010 with essentially the same plan as the Malaysian researchers. The experiment generated controversy for the same reason, that is, the local population was not much consulted:
But that lack of a public debate doesn’t sit well with the collaborators in a big international project, in which Oxitec is a key member, to develop and test GM mosquitoes. The program, funded by a $19.7 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and led by Anthony James of the University of California, Irvine, has spent years preparing a study site in the Mexican state of Chiapas for cage studies and a possible future release of another strain of Oxitec mosquitoes. The work includes extensive dialogues with citizen groups, regulators, academics and farmers. The project, one of Gates’s Grand Challenges in Global Health, would “never” release GM mosquitoes the way Oxitec has now done in Grand Cayman, says James.
Do the local residents have a right to greater participation in the introduction of GM animals?
The situation is reminiscent of the introduction of GM crops and foods. In North America, it was done with a minimum of public debate or notification. In Europe, debate was much more extensive. The result is that North Americans (perhaps unknowingly) grow and consume a great deal of GM food, whereas Europeans have proven quite reluctant to do the same.
Besides people’s right to know, the issue of GM mosquitoes might seem like a kind of illicit medical experiment. The Tuskegee syphilis experiment involved doctors observing poor, black residents of the town as they endured the illness, in spite of the fact that effective treatments were readily available and the nature of syphilis was already well enough understood. Only last year, it was revealed that a number of soldiers, prisoners, and mental patients in Guatemala were also involved in this study, also without their informed consent or offers of treatment. The GM mosquito experiments are not of the same variety and are intended to help reduce disease. Still, the conduct of experiments of a medical nature without consent of the people who might be affected is troublesome.
Candid smartphone January 27, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
First, it was Candid Microphone, a radio show in which Allen Funt took a microphone into the world to record the funny things said by ordinary people. Then, there was Candid Camera, in which Funt did something similar with a TV camera. It was amusing for the audience to see and hear the odd or embarrassing things that their fellow-citizens said and did.
(Image courtesy of Editor at Large via Wikimedia Commons.)
Today, as you know, we have YouTube, which allows anyone to upload videos of people doing noteworthy things. The latest such “viral” video involves a woman falling into a shopping mall fountain while texting. “It’s funny ’cause it’s not me”, as Homer Simpson once said.
This video was apparently captured by the security guards from a security camera in the mall. Nothing new there: Mall cops have been putting together tapes of amusing and naughty shoppers’ activities since CC cameras were introduced. Well, if your job were to watch parked cars all day, you would crave some stimulation too.
Of course, it’s different when the shoe is on the other foot. Mike Masnick of TechDirt has recently drawn our attention to people who use their smartphone cameras to film authorities (mis)handling their complaints. Here are a few recent examples:
- A woman was complaining to police about being assaulted by a police officer. The police response was unsympathetic, at which point she began to film them. She was then arrested for eavesdropping.
- A pilot is being disciplined by the TSA after he filmed some shortcomings in security at San Francisco Airport.
- A man was charged with various offenses by the TSA after he refused to show ID before boarding a flight although showing ID is not required. The man filmed the whole episode and uploaded it to YouTube.
In each of these cases, the people filming video seem to have been well within their rights to do so. Furthermore, the transparency that ubiquitous filming brings with it can promote a social good, that is, it can pressure authorities to follow the rules instead of acting arbitrarily (in the end). Of course, recording people’s behavior, and making a show of doing so, also turns up the social “temperature”. That is, it may make people defensive or angry where they would not otherwise be so.
So, incidents like these raise an interesting question (among others): Are we prepared for the emotional consequences of radical transparency in public places? Will we simply adjust, as Mark Zuckerberg suggests, to the new world in which transparency, not privacy, is the default setting of our lives? Or are we simply ill-equipped to deal with a world in which anything we do may be subject to the review of numberless people whom we do not know and who do not know us?
Robot comedy January 24, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
Here’s an interesting TEDWomen talk by Heather Knight premiering a robotic comedy routine. The robot’s name is “Data“, after the Star Trek character. The routine is not bad, containing some old jokes, and even challenges good taste a little with the “New Jersey hunters” joke. Data does a decent job and gets some laughs, although its timing could use some polish. It is not clear from the video how the robot is adjusting to its feedback, so we don’t learn much about comedy from this particular performance. No doubt more information will be coming.
(Image courtesy of Jiuguang Wang via Wikimedia Commons.)
Should we be thrilled or worried about robot entertainers? In her new book, Alone together, Sherry Turkle argues that we are starting to becoming too dependent on robots for our social relationships. The burden of the book appears to be that maintaining a relationship with a robot is too risk-free since the human half gets all the say. If we can just live in the company of robots and win all the arguments, the challenge and richness of genuine human company will become lost on us, to our detriment:
“Dependence on a robot presents itself as risk free,” Turkle writes. “But when one becomes accustomed to ‘companionship’ without demands, life with people may seem overwhelming.” A blind date can be a fraught proposition when there’s a robot at home that knows exactly what we need. And all she needs is a power outlet.
The argument is plausible as far as it goes. However, it seems to assume that people have a strong and coherent set of wants that they look to robots or others to fulfill. That may well be true in some cases, such as sexuality. However, people often are not clear about what they want and look to external sources for guidance or inspiration. A simple sexbot cannot occupy supply such a need, except in the case of particularly deficient individuals. The Mr. Data from Star Trek would be more appealing in this respect.
Anyway, the question remains: Should we be concerned about robots encroaching on human roles in the arts (and life in general), or can robots enrich human life through participation in the arts?
More silver nanoparticles January 21, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Silver nanoparticles are microscopic pieces of silver, between 1 and 100 nm in size. That’s small! They have an antibiotic effect, that is, they tend to kill microbes on exposure. This effect has made them very attractive as alternative to antibacterial chemicals. They have been impregnated into socks, to keep them from smelling so much, medical supplies such as face masks, vacuum cleaners, food washers, and are available simply by the jug.
(Nanosilver image courtesy of the Connections Website.)
Concerns have been raised about the eventual health effects of unleashing all this nanosilver into the environment. The particles can and do become detached from socks, jugs, etc., and get flushed down the drain, where they can accumulate in sewage sludge or the broader environment. The ecological effects of this accumulation are not well understood.
Of course, these issues have not stopped researchers from developing more applications. For example, researchers have recently developed “killer paper”, a food wrapping impregnated with nanosilver. The object of this development is to help prevent food from spoiling while in transit. Perhaps this treatment will prove more effective than current measures, such as heat treatment, refrigeration, and irradiation.
The research raises several questions. First, what will be the effects of the nanosilver on the environment? At present, no one knows. Second, is this technology really going to contribute most effectively to the prevention of food waste? According to Jonathan Bloom, author of American wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It), Americans waste between 1/4 and 1/2 of all the food they produce. Although spoilage does contribute to this problem (have you ever discovered a rotten lettuce in the back of your fridge?), far more crucial is wastage in production, over-stocking in stores, and over-consumption at home and in restaurants. If we are really serious about reducing food waste, then we have bigger fish to fry (if you’ll excuse the expression) than inventing alternatives to current food preservation methods. From that perspective, “killer paper” appears to be more of a solution in search of a problem than a remedy to the problem of food waste.
A turning point in shame? January 20, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
A while ago, I commented on how public shaming seemed to be an important use of intellectual property in the cybernetic era. Basically, some firms keep IP on their roster, in part, as a means to threaten lawsuits against other firms that threaten to sue them over IP. The threat of being exposed publicly as an IP hypocrite deters the lawsuit and saves everyone time and money.
Of course, such a procedure relies on the efficacy of shame. Imagine my concern when I read that the end of privacy on the Internet may mean the end of shame, at least, for individuals. The basic argument of this piece is that, as we become accustomed to having all our affairs made public through the Internet, we will cease to feel ashamed of any of them. “So what,” we will respond to critics and blackmailers, “everyone does stuff like that, so who will care that I did?”
(Keeper misses an easy save from Jan Arkesteijn via Wikimedia Commons.)
You can imagine some of the concerns stirred by the prospect of the general loss of shame. Shame imposes conformity to social standards, so the loss of shame will free us all from social norms that stifle our creativity and self-realization. Afraid of telling your university classmates that you really like Justin Bieber’s new song? Don’t be! They won’t care; they’re just as bad, and you can prove it with a Google search. On the downside, not caring for any social norms could make you a sociopath. Not good.
However, Scott Brown argues in a recent Wired article that everyone will get their 15 minutes of shame on the Internet. For example:
Thanks to instant distribution, a personal scandal can occasionally engulf the entire globe. You don’t need a famous name, or any name, or even a face. Last summer, a random Briton tossed a cat in a trash can while an out-of-focus security camera looked on; the righteous trolls at 4chan found Cat-Trashing Lady within a day and led the public to her door, literally, via Google maps. (An apology followed within 24 hours.)
Thank you, online vigilantes! If Brown is right, public shaming will only intensify in the era of social media and instant and ubiquitous connectivity.
So, which is it? Is shame headed for the dustbin of history, or will it a mainstay in the new order? I’m not sure. I doubt that the emotion of shame in individuals is going anywhere, unless, of course, it is removed by some popular brain augmentation implant. Shame is deeply embedded in human nature. However, what we feel ashamed about is a learned behaviour. Instead of eliminating shame, I suspect that social media will simply play an increasingly significant role in determining what is shameful and what is not.
Civilization and the toaster January 14, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV100, STV202 , comments closed
Here is a wonderful TED talk from London last November in which Thomas Thwaites recounts his quest to build a toaster from scratch! And, by “scratch”, I mean starting by mining the basic minerals himself! A must-see! (Also, check out his Toaster Project website.)
(Image courtesy of Daniel Alexander via thomasthwaites.com.)
What is the relevance to this blog? As Mr. Thwaites points out, a toaster may seem like a simple technology on the surface. However, it takes a whole civilization to make one possible (or, at least, feasible). So, the video highlights, in a marvelous way, how dependent technology and society are on each other.
2010? Where did it go? January 13, 2011Posted by Scott Campbell in : Uncategorized , comments closed
Unfortunately, the list is spread across several pages, so here are the nominees:
- Stuxnet shows malware’s military power
- Kinect gets hacked into shape
- WikiLeaks spawns digital conflict
- Drone shoot-down demos laser cannon
- Is the body the best model for a green city?
- Your body as a touchscreen (as above)
- Robot punches people so it won’t harm us
- Ditch the 3D specs
- ‘Play 4D hologram, R2D2′
There’s some jargon here, perhaps an inevitability of both the topic and the nature of short headlines. Stuxnet and Kinect are new words for 2010; Wikileaks extends back several years, but only achieved fame (infamy?) in 2010. Lists like this are also fairly arbitrary, but why not include, say, blow-out preventers, electric cars or safer glasses for serving beer (well, I think I know why they missed the last one).
Something else jumped out for me. This CSTV blog was also launched in 2010, and nothing on the New Scientist list appeared on our blog in a substantial manner. I think Wikileaks was mentioned as an aside once, and military/surveillance drones were mentioned in passing. But none of the “biggest technologies stories” managed to cross paths with CSTV. Hmmm. There are a few interpretations that come to mind. One is that we here at CSTV are entirely out of touch and our blatherings are but the irrelevant rumblings of the ivory-tower eggheads.
My more preferred understanding goes like this: when it comes to studying, understanding and appreciating the relationship between society, technology and values, rarely is it a good idea to focus too much attention on the newest and biggest high-tech toys. How can we tell which are truly significant, even revolutionary, and which are the shiny distracting baubles? Can you really line every technology story up at the end of the year and say with any authority which was the most important?
Without hindsight, this is not easy. More than a few months worth, too. For example, there’s very little doubt that mechanical book reproduction and the printing press had an enormous impact on society; we’ve had hundreds of years to deal with (and study) the consequences of a particular German goldsmith’s invention: think of the broad improvements accompanied by improved literacy and the religious revolution of the Protestant Reformation. But while “The Social Network“, a popular 2010 film about the creation of Facebook, might be engaging how can we tell exactly how meaningful Facebook is? In 10, 50 or 500 years from now, will social networking websites still be said to have changed society? Or, for that matter, Kinect and 3D television? Not that I’m claiming that we here at CSTV have the prescience to answer these questions, but there is no shame in failing to agree on the top tech news of 2010 and I hope our explorations of technology and society interaction offer added value beyond random tech story compilations.
Five articles on computer technology in society January 13, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
Well, there are lots of stories that deserve our attention, so I will just supply pointers to a select few:
- From the Risks digest comes the story of a failed FedEx package delivery. The delivery failed because FedEx staff were unable or unwilling to override the package’s incorrect status on their computer system. My question: In the end, is this a story of human triumph or human bondage?
- A doctor writes about how an electronic health record system can change how doctors think about patients. In this case, the system in question limits doctors to a 1000 word description of a patient’s condition. This limit can be a Procrustean Bed that is ill-suited to patients with complicated medical conditions. I am particularly concerned by the attitude of the technician to whom the doctor turns for help:
In desperation, I call the help desk and voice my concerns. “Well, we can’t have the doctors rambling on forever,” the tech replies.
- In the wake of the flash crash of May 2010, concern over the automation of stock trading in the form of high-speed trading has grown. It appears that, at some point in the not-too-distant future, no human being will understand how the stock market really works. Is that a good thing?
- This Wednesday, January 12, 2011, a stolen snow plow was driven recklessly through the city of Toronto. A Toronto Police officer was struck and killed by the plow. In addition, the owner of the plow was tracking it via a GPS device, attempting to recover it. Apparently, such incidents are on the increase, as more and more things become geo-locatable. Police urge that people not do this, and leave tracking and apprehension to them. After all, owners of stolen property getting involved in apprehension can make a charged situation more dangerous. However, it may be difficult to stop people from doing what their gear enables them to do and following their instincts in the heat of the moment.
- Google is creating a conversation mode for its Google Translation software. It promises to allow real-time translation between languages. Such a service might make it much easier and more inviting for people from different parts of the globe to interact with each other. What a gain for mutual understanding! Of course, it could also dis-incentivize people from actually learning foreign languages. So, will the mutual understanding perhaps provided by this gear remain somewhat superficial?
Anyway, clearly, it has been an interesting week for information technology and society.
Gamma ray breast cancer screening January 10, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
In a recent TEDWomen talk, Dr. Deborah Rhodes discusses her experiences in developing and promoting a breast screening imagery system that uses gamma rays instead of the x-rays currently used in digital mammography. Dr. Rhodes as an intern at the Mayo clinic in Minnesota. Serendipitously, she and some physicist colleagues developed a “gamma camera” that produces mammography images much more effective than conventional x-ray imaging for breast cancer screening in women with dense breast tissue. (Read more here.)
(Image courtesy of the US Navy via Wikimedia Commons.)
Dr. Rhodes reports that she has had a difficult time publishing her results in the usual radiology venues. This resistance arises from at least two grounds:
- As an institution, radiology has an investment in a particular technology, that is, digital x-ray mammography, and a training regime that teaches radiologists to read x-ray mammograms to locate suspicious lumps in images. Adopting a new technology would mean a substantial change in technological investment, in creating standards for when to use the complementary technologies, and how to read the results.
- As individuals, Dr. Rhodes reports that some radiologists had financial stakes in the use of digital mammography that made them unfairly hostile to the prospect of a competing technology. Those individuals, she reports, used their influence to have her articles rejected from journals in the field.
There are many issues to explore here but two come to my mind immediately. The first is that the situation is reminiscent of the experience that Warren and Marshall had in the 1980s in making their case for a bacteria, namely helicobacter pylori, as the cause of gastric ulcers. The dominant theory at the time was that ulcers were caused by stress. Warren and Marshall discovered bacteria present with ulcers and that eradication of the bacteria led to elimination of ulcers. However, they had difficulty in getting their results published in gastroenterology journals because of the prevalence of the stress hypothesis and the view that the stomach is simply too acidic for bacteria to tolerate. Warren and Marshall eventually managed to make their case and won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2005 for this work. Because of their (not entirely misplaced) confidence in their views and their investment in the treatment regime that went with those views, the gastroenterology community was not ready to make fundamental revisions without a fair amount of evidence and prodding. Likewise, the medical imaging community is not ready to adopt the “gamma camera” without offering some resistance, not all of it fair, perhaps.
Another point raised by this episode is Neil Postman’s claim that technological change is ecological and not additive:
In the year 1500, after the printing press was invented, you did not have old Europe plus the printing press. You had a different Europe. After television, America was not America plus television. Television gave a new coloration to every political campaign, to every home, to every school, to every church, to every industry, and so on.
Among other things, the adoption of a technology can create profound changes in social institutions. The printing press, for example, made possible the lending library and a new model of education for the masses. (See our previous discussion of technology as more than just a tool.) Likewise, the adoption of digital mammography has naturally meant the adoption of a specific and nuanced set of standards for training radiologists and for what counts as the competent performance at reading mammograms. Thus, you cannot expect to simply replace or even complement digital x-rays with a “gamma camera” quickly and even easily. The way in which digital mammography is built in to the current system makes change difficult at the institutional level. Then, as Dr. Rhodes notes, there is the social and financial investment that individuals within the institution have in the existing technology. If the “gamma camera” is adopted, then it will, in its turn, become “ecological”, that is, embedded in the medical imaging community. Afterwards, it will make life difficult for those promoting the next innovation in cancer diagnosis.
Must history repeat itself? January 7, 2011Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV100, STV302 , comments closed
No, but to borrow from the famous quote, it sure does rhyme.
Over the Christmas break news broke in the New York Times that particular medical machines in the United States had accidentally administered radiation overdoses to three patients. Reaction in the RISKS forum (previously mentioned here) was predictable and swift:
We are talking 17 years since the 1993 Leveson-Turner article on the Therac. Despite (we will surely hear) `measures’ having been `put in place’
to prevent such a thing from happening again, it appears to be the same-old same-old. As are the excuses:
Medical physicists say there is nothing inherently wrong with linear accelerators that deliver general radiation therapy, as well as SRS. And, they say, the overdoses might have been caught had users followed a more rigorous system of checks and double-checks. “Tens of thousands of patients have been treated with protocols properly followed and no mistakes were made,” said Dr. Frank J. Bova, a medical physicist in Gainesville, Fla., and a pioneer in developing and enhancing the accuracy of SRS. “It has changed many difficult procedures, ones with high surgical risk, into one-day outpatient procedures.”
I wonder. Do we see airline executives on the TV after a major aircraft accident saying “it’s only one plane; there are hundreds/thousands of others just like this one flying every day without problems!”? Or Toyota: “it’s only one (or a few cars) with bad floormats! There are thousands/millions of cars just like this driving every day without problems!”
The Therac-25 case referred to above is now a classic study of hardware and software design gone wrong combined with institutional difficulties that led to a radiation therapy machine that could also accidentally administer radiation overdoes. In that case, six patients were seriously injured. Every engineer, computer scientist, software engineer, and indeed, every physician and radiation therapy technician should know the story of the Therac-25.
Analysis of the most recent incident has only begun, but as another commenter noted on RISKS:
The RISKS are old – cobbled together systems, or systems with repurposed pieces, are more likely to have mismatches that lead to safety failures, just as we saw with the Therac-25 over 25 years ago. I suspect (although the article does not hint at this) that the continuing pressure to increase usage of expensive machines leaves less time for the medical physicists to learn the machines thoroughly and verify the settings precisely.
See also RISKS-24.47, 25.82, 25.92, 25.93, 26.02, and many others….
dating back to 3.09.
Does history have to repeat itself? Are we be doomed to repeat our mistakes or are these acceptable incidents of collateral damage on the road to progress? I’ll admit a depressing lack of insight here. It is a seemingly intractable problem.