Harvard Effective Altruism: Nick Bostrom. September 4 @8pm.

This message is from the students at Harvard Effective Altruism:

Welcome back to school, altruists! 

I’m happy to announce our first talk of the semester – from philosopher Nick Bostrom. See you there!

 

- – - – - 

 

Harvard College Effective Altruism presents:

 

Superintelligence

Paths, Dangers, Strategies

 

with Nick Bostrom

Director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University


What happens when machines surpass humans in general intelligence? Will artificial agents save or destroy us? Professor Bostrom will explore these questions, laying the foundation for understanding the future of humanity and intelligent life. Q&A will follow the talk. Copies of Bostrom’s new book -Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies - will be available for purchase. RSVP on Facebook.

 

Thursday, September 4

8 pm

Emerson 105

Rational Actors and Happy Actors

By Nathaniel Counts

Politics, theoretically at least, is a process designed to enhance the sense of wellbeing of its citizens.  The success of this process, the amount of wellbeing that can be created, is hamstrung by biology – we have basal levels of felt wellbeing that are determined through some amount of nature and nurture, and that are independent of our present circumstances.  Because there is a biological component to it, we may be able to alter an individual’s basal wellbeing before they reach adulthood.  For example, if hypomania, a psychological condition where the individual only experiences the manic part of bipolar disorder, were found to have a definitively genetic etiology, gene therapy could be used on embryos so that they would grow up to experience the constant heightened state of wellbeing associated with the condition (for an interesting article on hypomania and wellbeing, see here).

Continue reading

The Neuroethics of Unintentional Memory-Modification

By Matthew L Baum

At least since the publication of the President’s Commission on Bioethics’ report in 2003, “Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness”, there has been an ongoing debate about the ethics of using drugs to modify emotional memories.  Rather than focus on the Hollywood-type total memory erasure featured in the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, many ground the debate in the molecular neuroscience of memory reconsolidation (for an excellent overview, see here). In the process of memory reconsolidation, a newly reactivated memory triggers certain molecular events that are necessary for it to return to long-term storage; during these events, the memory is temporarily susceptible to disruption by certain drugs like the beta-blocker, propranolol. Further work with people with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) suggests that using propranolol in this way doesn’t erase a memory, but may blunt the reconsolidation of the memory’s negative emotional content. In the ethical discussion, most agree that 1) it should usually be acceptable to use drugs to modify memories in cases of PTSD where the emotional content of memories becomes debilitating, but 2) the use of memory modifying drugs is usually morally problematic when the target is everyday unpleasant memories, disappointments, and rejections.

Existing debate has focused on intentional memory modification. But what about those who modify memories in these problematic ways unintentionally? Conspicuously under-discussed is the ethics of continuing to use drugs with potential memory-modifying properties for the treatment of other medical conditions. Propranolol, for example, is on the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) National Formulary for treatment of patients with severe liver disease (liver cirrhosis). This (not-small) population of people, in theory, risks unintentionally (and pre-emptively) modifying memories every day!

Continue reading

Inaugural Issue of the new Journal of Law and the Biosciences Now Online (Free Access)

I am very pleased to announce the the first-ever issue of The Journal of Law and the Biosciences is now online. I serve as one of three Editors In Chief (along with Nita Farahany and Hank Greely). The journal is a co-production of Harvard, Duke, and Stanford Law schools and Oxford University Press and is the first peer-reviewed journal of its kind.

Here is the table of contents for the first issue:

Edward S. Dove, Bartha M. Knoppers, and Ma’n H. Zawati, Towards an ethics safe harbor for global biomedical research, J Law Biosci (March 2014) 1 (1): 3-51 doi:10.1093/jlb/lst002

Rebecca Dresser, Public preferences and the challenge to genetic research policy, J Law Biosci (March 2014) 1 (1): 52-67 doi:10.1093/jlb/lst001

Hannah Maslen, Thomas Douglas, Roi Cohen Kadosh, Neil Levy, and Julian Savulescu, The regulation of cognitive enhancement devices: extending the medical model, J Law Biosci (March 2014) 1 (1): 68-93 doi:10.1093/jlb/lst003

Timothy Caulfield, Sarah Burningham, Yann Joly, Zubin Master, Mahsa Shabani, Pascal Borry, Allan Becker, Michael Burgess, Kathryn Calder, Christine Critchley, Kelly Edwards, Stephanie M. Fullerton, Herbert Gottweis, Robyn Hyde-Lay, Judy Illes, Rosario Isasi, Kazuto Kato, Jane Kaye, Bartha Knoppers, John Lynch, Amy McGuire, Eric Meslin, Dianne Nicol, Kieran O’Doherty, Ubaka Ogbogu, Margaret Otlowski, Daryl Pullman, Nola Ries, Chris Scott, Malcolm Sears, Helen Wallace, and Ma’n H. Zawati, A review of the key issues associated with the commercialization of biobanks, J Law Biosci (March 2014) 1 (1): 94-110 doi:10.1093/jlb/lst004

t

Public Lecture at Radcliffe Institute “The Ethicist’s and The Lawyer’s New Clothes: The Law and the Ethics of Smart Clothes” now Available on Youtube

As part of a public lecture series at the Radcliffe Institute on “Smart Clothes” I delivered a public lecture entitled “The Ethicist’s and the Lawyer’s New Clothes: The Law and Ethics of Smart Clothes.” The lecture is now available for viewing on youtube. As the promotional materials described the lecture: “From enhanced exosuits for members of the armed services to clothing that spies on you, I. Glenn Cohen focuses on legal and ethical issues pertaining to the future of smart clothes.” While CNN coverage of the lecture focused on the surveillance aspects of these clothes, I think the discussion of exosuits and enhancements may be more interesting to BOH readers.

Book Review published on SSRN

Three weeks ago I blogged about my recent review of  “Pharmaceutical Innovation, Competition and Patent Law – a Trilateral Perspective” (Edward Elgar 2013). The full review, which is forthcoming in a spring issue of European Competition Law Review (Sweet Maxwell), is now available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2396804.

DC Circuit Upholds FDA Authority Over Stem Cells

Earlier this week, the D.C. Circuit upheld the FDA’s authority to regulate stem cells (for a good news report see here). The company in question, Regenerative Sciences, had received a warning letter from FDA, which the company challenged claiming that its use of stem cells as therapy was not prohibited by existing federal law and that the FDA lacked authority to regulate it. They lost before the district court and appealed to the D.C. Circuit.

In a unanimous decision (by judge Griffith for himself, Judge Srinivasan and Edwards) the D.C. Circuit affirmed this decision. Here are some key passages: Continue reading

Now Available: Bioethical Prescriptions by Frances M. Kamm

Bioethical Prescriptions: To Create, End, Choose, and Improve Lives

By Frances M. Kamm, Littauer Professor of Philosophy and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Professor of Philosophy in the Harvard University Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Petrie-Flom Academic Fellow alumna

This book is a collection of Frances M. Kamm‘s articles on bioethics, which have appeared over the last twenty-five years and which have made her among the most influential philosophers in this area. Kamm is known for her intricate, sophisticated, and painstaking philosophical analyses of moral problems generally and of bioethical issues in particular. This volume showcases these articles – revised to eliminate redundancies — as parts of a coherent whole. A substantive introduction identifies important themes than run through the articles. Section headings include Death and Dying; Early Life (on conception and use of embryos, abortion, and childhood); Genetics and Other Enhancements (on cloning and other genetic technologies); Allocating Scarce Resources; and Methodology (on the relation of moral theory and practical ethics).

Livestream of Sessions from the 2013 International Neuroethics Society Annual Meeting

The Petrie-Flom Center is pleased to host a live webstream of sessions from the International Neuroethics Society‘s 2013 Annual Meeting on Friday, November 8, in the Petrie-Flom Center conference room (302) at 23 Everett St. on the Harvard Law School campus. Participants are encouraged to submit questions directly to the panels via email (administrator@neuroethicssociety.org) and Twitter (@NeuroethicsInfo).

12:15-2:15pm: “The Science and Ethics of Moral Enhancement”

Can we create a morality pill?  Neuroscientists are discovering how hormones and brain chemicals shape aspects of social behavior relevant for morality, including empathy, cooperation, aggression, trust, and altruism. This work opens potential avenues for pharmacological manipulation of ethical values. In this session, speakers will review studies demonstrating how neuromodulators shape moral decisions, evaluate the evidence for and challenges facing the development of moral-enhancing interventions, and discuss the ethical implications of shaping human morality.

Format:  20-minute presentations and 60 minutes of Q & A

Moderator:  Barbara Sahakian, University of Cambridge

Speakers:

  • Julian Savulescu, University of Oxford
  • Patricia Churchland, Univ of California-San Diego
  • Molly Crockett, University of Zurich

4:30-6:30pm, “States of Consciousness: Neuroethics in impairments of consciousness, brain-machine interfacing and end of life decisions?”

Recent brain-imaging studies detected covert awareness in a small proportion of patients in vegetative or minimally conscious state. In rare cases patients were even able to answer yes or no questions. Brain stimulation can lead to behavioral improvements of the minimal conscious. What are the ethical and legal implications of these findings for withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment or food and fluid? How reliable is communication via a brain-computer interface especially when it comes to end of life decisions? This panel will discuss a broad range of clinical challenges as well as ethico-legal implications with four renowned experts in the field.

Format:  Brief statements of 5 – 8 minutes followed by discussion among the panel and 60  minutes of Q & A

Moderator:  Jens Clausen, University of Tubingen

Speakers:

  • Lisa Claydon, University of Manchester
  • Joe Fins, Weill Cornell Medical College
  • John Pickard, University of Cambridge
  • Niko Schiff, Weill Cornell Medical College

This event is free and open to the public. For more information, contact us at petrie-flom@law.harvard.edu or 617-496-4662.

Announcing the New Journal of Law and Biosciences

The Petrie-Flom Center and Harvard Law School are delighted to announce our partnership with Duke University, Stanford University, and Oxford University Press to launch a new peer-reviewed, open access, online journal in 2014: Journal of Law and the Biosciences (JLB).

JLB will become the preeminent outlet to publish cutting-edge scholarship wherever law and the biosciences intersect. The journal will take a broad and interdisciplinary view of these areas, publishing articles on topics generally considered part of bioethics or neuroethics, such as the ethical, legal, and social implications of reproductive technologies, genetics, stem cell research, neuroscience, or human biological enhancement.  At the same time, JLB will be a home for work that speaks directly to legal issues where the biosciences can be involved, such as food and drug regulation, biosciences patent law, scientific evidence, and criminal responsibility.

Continue reading

Dov Fox on screening sperm donors’ DNA

In “Company seeks to make sperm banks safer,” a recent article in the Boston Globe, Bill of Health blogger Dov Fox recently weighed in on new companies that propose to screen sperm donor DNA in an effort to reduce the chance that children conceived with donated sperm will have childhood genetic diseases:

Dov Fox, an assistant professor at the University of San Diego School of Law who studies bioethics, said it is unclear whether genomic understanding will evolve to allow testing such as GenePeeks offers to ever be informative for common diseases caused by a blend of genetic and environmental risk factors. And he, like others, worries that one day such technology will be extended to not just avoiding disease, but selecting the babies parents want. GenePeeks will not cross that line, Morriss said.

Read the full article here.

Dov Fox on the question of “designer babies”

Bill of Health blogger Dov Fox was quoted in the recent article “Genetic-testing patent raises concerns about ‘designer babies’.”

“‘Some people might say this is in some respects similar to dating websites to the extent you look for traits in somebody you want to have children with,’ said Dov Fox, a law professor at the University of San Diego. But the important question, he said, is whether the accuracy from the genetic testing, albeit imperfect, makes 23andMe’s service more troubling.”

View the full article here.

Art Caplan: In Defense of GMOs

Bill of Health contributor Art Caplan has a new opinion piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education. In “Genetically Modified Food: Good, Bad, Ugly,” Caplan argues for the unrealized promise of GMOs:

[...] commercial farming of oranges and grapefruit is in dire peril from an insect-borne bacteria that causes a disease known as “citrus greening.” An uncontrollable fungal blight is destroying the banana crop around the world. Coffee rust is knocking out plants in Central and South America. Diseases like rice blast, soybean rust, stem rust in wheat, corn smut in maize, and late blight in potatoes destroy at least 125 million tons each year of the world’s top five foods. The damage done to rice, wheat, and maize alone costs global agriculture $60-billion per year. The effects are especially catastrophic in the developing world, where 1.4 billion people rely on these foods.

There is a way to get rid of such otherwise unstoppable plant diseases, which waste scarce resources, bring about malnutrition and starvation for hundreds of millions, and cost the world economy billions of dollars. Genetically modified organisms.

Specifically, engineering plants to resist the diseases. So why don’t the folks bearing the bad news about GMOs make a connection to the huge problems that could be fixed by genetic engineering? The answer is the bungling mismanagement of a potentially useful breakthrough technology by the GMO industry, alongside market forces that produce GMOs friendly to pesticides rather than hostile to fungi. [....]

Bad management thus turned a technology that should have been greeted as a way out of chemically based farming into a public-relations nightmare.

Read the full article here.

What Is (Not) Wrong With Doping – Part II

[In part I, I considered, and rejected, arguments that doping harms the athletes and treats human nature wrongly.]

Spirit of sport

Let us now turn to the third objection: the use of PEDs destroys the spirit of sport. Of course, “spirit of sport” is a rather nebulous concept. Here is what the WADA has to say about it:

The spirit of sport is the celebration of the human spirit, body and mind, and is characterized by the following values: Ethics, fair play and honesty; health; excellence in performance; character and education; fun and joy; teamwork; dedication and commitment; respect for rules and laws; respect for self and other participants; courage; community and solidarity. Doping is fundamentally contrary to the spirit of sport.[1]

Even if one agrees with this not-very-useful definition, it remains a mystery how the WADA deduces that doping (if allowed) is contrary to this spirit so defined.

I think it is better to put the WADA’s statement aside and see if there can be a better use of this concept of the “spirit of sport.” To demystify it, one may ask two questions: what is the purpose/aim of professional sports, and why do we cheer for an athlete. Once we clarify what we mean by the spirit of sport, we can inquire how doping corrupts this spirit.

Continue reading

What Is (Not) Wrong With Doping – Part I

Sports news has a permanent section now: the doping news. Less than a month ago, Gay and Powell (“the second and the fourth fastest men of all time”) also tested positive for banned substances. What used to be a scandalous piece of news (maybe with its final anti-hero being Lance Armstrong) became more of a curiosity item. The problem of doping became so wide-spread (tainting even curling!) that it is casting doubt on every medal we have ever seen in sports history. The war against doping seems to be a failure and even those who previously fought against doping now start to re-consider their views.[1]

Under the current rules, the ethical problem with doping is obvious: fairness. Those who cheat the system have an unfair advantage. However, the cheating argument is valid only when doping is prohibited. If the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) were allowed, there would be no cheating since every sportsperson would be equally entitled to use them.[2]

Then, why not just allow doping?

Three objections are common:
1. It is dangerous/harmful for the athletes.
2. It treats human nature wrongly.
3. It violates the spirit of sports.

None of these objections are strong.

Continue reading

Racism in Transplant Denial? Or Too Few Hearts To Go Around?

Anthony Stokes, a fifteen year old kid from Decatur County, Georgia, is expected to die in a matter of months, according to his doctors at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.  Maybe, they say, he will live for six months.  Who knows?  Anthony suffers from an enlarged, increasingly less functional heart.  His condition is not unusual, and a reasonably effective cure is at hand: a heart transplant. (Learn more about Anthony’s story here.)

However, Anthony has become the latest victim of a dysfunctional U.S. transplantation system, which tempts Americans with a transplant waiting list, but kicks them off if they become too sick or too old.  The problem is that there are too few organs to meet demand, and this perennial problem receives far too little attention from Congress.  Indeed, the U.S. transplantation list, coordinated by the United Network for Organ Sharing, UNOS, (a private organization that coordinates significant aspects of the U.S. transplant system) is so overcrowded that patients increasingly turn to black markets in India, China, Pakistan, South Africa, and other countries if they hope to survive.  (Learn more about that here.) Congressional hearings document Chinese prisoners dying and shortly thereafter Americans receiving organs.

Anthony’s family and some local organizations claim that racism is behind doctors refusing to place the boy on the transplant list.  Anthony is African American.  They ask, what is the harm in letting him on the list?

Continue reading

Blackjack and Cognitive Enhancement

Blackjack players who “count cards” keep track of cards that have already been played and use this knowledge to turn the probability of winning in their favor. Though many casinos eject card counters or otherwise make their task more difficult, card counting is perfectly legal. So long as card counters rely on their own memory and computational skills, they have violated no laws and can make sizable profits.

By contrast, if players use a device to count cards, like a smartphone, they have committed a serious crime. For example, several iPhone apps helps players count cards and at least one has a “stealth mode” that lets users surreptitiously enter data and receive feedback. In response, the Nevada Gaming Control Board issued an open letter reminding the public that using such an app when betting at blackjack violates the state’s antidevice statute which provides for up to 6 years imprisonment for a first offense. Somehow using a device to augment our abilities to remember and to calculate turns a perfectly legal activity into an offense with a very serious penalty.

The fact that we do not criminalize natural, unassisted card counting raises interesting questions of criminal and constitutional law: Could we criminalize natural card counting without violating fundamental principles that protect thought privacy? (Email me for a manuscript on that question.) In this recently published paper, however, I focus on a puzzle about technological enhancement. Namely, can we justify criminalizing device-assisted card counting but not unassisted card counting?

The importance of the question extends beyond the world of blackjack and casino gaming because it appears, at least superficially, that antidevice statutes criminalize a kind of technological enhancement. Some ethicists distinguish therapies that seek to return us to normal, healthy functioning from enhancements that promise to give us extraordinary abilities. People are often much more comfortable with therapies (e.g., drugs or devices to treat attention deficit disorder) than with enhancements (e.g., drugs or devices to give us better-than-normal concentration).

As a historical matter, casinos lobbied for antidevices statutes in the 1980s to protect their revenue as computers were becoming more popular and accessible. I focus on a deeper question: Is there any moral justification for permitting an activity, like card counting, when it uses only our natural abilities but severely punishing the activity when it is technologically enhanced? I consider a couple of possible justifications for the differential treatment and suggest that both are lacking.

[Adapted from Criminalizing Card Counting at the Blackjack Table; Originally posted at Prawfsblawg]

Introducing our Online Abortion and Reproductive Technology Symposium

[Editor's Note: This is Glenn Cohen guest posting on behalf of Kim Mutcherson, what follows below is her post. I will be posting on behalf of several symposium contributors over the next few days.]

On Friday, April 5, a group of almost 30 (mostly legal) scholars gathered at Rutgers Law-Camden to have difficult conversations about abortion and assisted reproduction. The event, sponsored by Rutgers Law and the Law School Initiative of the Center for Reproductive Rights (http://reproductiverights.org/en/our-work/law-school-initiative) sought to initiate discussion about the seeming gulf between those working on issues related to abortion and those working on assisted reproduction and assisted reproductive technology (ART).  Friday’s conversation was the first of at least three planned events with the other two to be sponsored at some future point by the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology and Bioethics at Harvard Law School and the Program for the Study of Reproductive Justice in the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. If the nature of the conversation at this kick-off event is a harbinger of things to come, I am anticipating that top-notch and cutting edge scholarship related to reproductive rights and reproductive justice will emerge from workshop participants.

While it might seem intuitive that scholars of reproduction would talk often, much of the work in this arena exists in silos. Those writing about abortion have plenty of work to do in keeping up with the flurry of state laws seeking to destroy what remains of Roe v. Wade in a post-Planned Parenthood v. Casey world. And those working in the world of assisted reproduction have to keep abreast of emerging science that is always light years ahead of what the law has done or seems capable of doing. As a consequence, opportunities to study the intertwining and divergence between the right to end a pregnancy and a right to create one are sparse.

And so, in the year that we commemorate the 40th anniversary of Roe, we engaged in a respectful, honest, and richly complex dialogue about the appropriate paradigm for understanding the right to abortion and the right to use assisted reproduction—liberty, equality or some new paradigm that we have yet to fully embrace or articulate.

Continue reading

The High Cost of Health Care: Why Some Pay $240 for a $9 Bottle of Pills

By Jonathan J. Darrow

An earlier post discussed the equivocal efficacy of Propecia (finasteride) as a baldness remedy, ending with the provocative assertion that, efficacy aside, “there is little reason for anyone ever to buy or consume Propecia (finasteride), or any doctor ever to prescribe it, since a much cheaper and identical chemical sold under the trade name Proscar (finasteride), is available.” This post continues the discussion, addressing one small component of the rising cost of healthcare—the cost of finasteride.  It explores why consumers pay as much as $240 for a bottle of Propecia (finasteride) when a $9 bottle of an equivalent, FDA-approved supply of the identical chemical is readily and legally available at nearby stores.

In the exorbitantly priced landscape of prescription drugs, there is at least one low-cost oasis: Wal*Mart.  Though some find reason to criticize the discount store, few would disapprove of the dozens of prescription medications Wal*Mart offers for an unbeatable $4 for a 30-day supply.  Cost-sensitive consumers can purchase everything from blood thinners to antidepressants to antibiotics at this price, while a 90-day supply is only $10 (and this price includes shipping to your doorstep).  A handful of drugs that cannot be sold at $4 per month sell for a still-modest $9.  For the 300 or so drugs on Wal*Mart’s list, this means there is no longer a need for $10 co-pays or snowy treks to the pharmacy in 15 degree weather.  That’s right: the Wal*Mart total price is less than most insurance company co-pays.  Finally, a major industry player seems to have put effective downward pressure on prescription drug prices.  Continue reading

Finasteride as an FDA-Approved Baldness Remedy: Is It Effective?

By Jonathan J. Darrow

Questionable baldness remedies have been peddled since the beginning of medicine. According to Pliny (23-79 A.D.), ashes of seahorse could cure baldness.  Almost 2000 years later, the British Medical Association warned the public of the increasing “number of preparations put forward for the cure of baldness,” particularly those which “are not applied locally but taken internally.”  The purported active ingredient? “[H]aemoglobin.”  (see Secret Remedies (1909), page 114).

While the medicinal use of a seahorse or dried blood matter may sound fanciful to modern ears, one has to wonder whether today’s public is any less credulous: Worldwide, consumers have spent over $400 million per year on a modern baldness remedy known by the trade name Propecia (finasteride).  Has science finally triumphed over a medical condition that has persisted through millennia? Today’s consumers might rationally believe that its has, given that Propecia is FDA-approved for the treatment of alopecia (baldness).  FDA-approved remedies must, according to federal law (21 U.S.C. § 355(d)), prove their efficacy in well-controlled, clinical investigations.

Yet one need only walk through a crowded street to see that, if a baldness cure has truly arrived, a surprising number of people have not availed themselves of it. Is Propecia, then, not effective? Let us take a look at the official data. Continue reading