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Top 10 ethical dilemmas in science for 2016: the annual list of ethical dilemmas and policy issues in science and technology includes some surprising issues--like a Barbie--as well as some not-so-surprising technologies like CRISPR.

For the fourth consecutive year, the John J. Reilly Center for Science, Technology and Values at the University of Notre Dame has released its annual list of emerging ethical dilemmas and policy issues in science and technology for 2016. According to the center, the list is "designed to get people thinking about potential ethical dilemmas before controversial science or technology goes mainstream."

The list is generated with the help of Reilly Center fellows, other Notre Dame experts and friends of the Center. It is presented in no particular order.

1. CRISPR/Cas9-technology for gene editing

It's not surprising that CRISPR made this 2016 list. It made all kinds of end-of-the-year lists--good, bad and indifferent. Invented in 2012, the genetic engineering technique, which is capable of quickly, easily and inexpensively performing precise changes in DNA, saw dramatically increased interest in 2015, and shows no signs of a slowdown as we enter 2016.

The main concern with CRISPR is that it can be used to perform germline genetic modifications, which means making changes in a human egg, sperm or embryo. These modifications would be passed down for generations, impacting an entire lineage rather than just one person. Will removing one disease give rise to a different disease? Could a brand new disease spring up? What will changes and splices in DNA mean for the overall human genome?

Another concern is this technology could open the door to what is called "designer babies," or genetically engineered children. For example, someone could use CRISPR to "make" a highly intelligent, brown-haired, blue-eyed child, or one that is given both height and athletic ability. The possibilities are endless--as are the ethical implications.

2. Whole genome diagnosis--record and catalog the genomes of newborns

A second genetic technology on the list this year is genome sequencing for newborns. A large research project already underway is collecting drops of newborns' blood to fully map their genetic code, thereby screening for all current and future health risks.

Today, U.S. babies have a heel pricked in the hospital to provide a spot of blood to be tested for signs of at least 30 rare diseases. This newborn screening catches several thousand affected babies each year in time for early treatment to prevent death, brain damage or other disabilities. However, a complete genome sequence would go well beyond the heel-prick test, allowing a search for potentially hundreds of other conditions, some that arise in childhood and some later, some preventable and some not.

This raises multiple questions, like, should parents be told only about childhood threats? Or would they also want to learn if their babies carried a key gene for, say, breast cancer after they're grown? Could knowing about future risks alter how a family treats an otherwise healthy child? And how accurate is the technology--could it raise too many false alarms?

The NIH is currently funding multiple studies to investigate the best use of rapid whole genome sequencing for newborns.

3. Talking Barbie--a new Barbie that records conversations with your child

This is one of the first mainstream artificial intelligence toys on the market. When a child activates a microphone inside Hello Barbie's necklace, his/her words will be recorded and transmitted to computer servers. Speech recognition software will convert the audio message to analyzable text, enabling the "correct" response to be chosen out of thousands of pre-scripted lines. Hello Barbie is constantly connected to WiFi and records all communication to improve her conversation skills.

The problem lies in the fact that Barbie is a child's toy. Children are not adults. Children do not comprehend the outside world as adults do. If a child misunderstands a conversation between his/her parents and relays it to Barbie--like complaints about a coworker such as, "I want to shoot him every time he talks"--what happens next? Does that exaggerated information make it to the police? On the other hand, it could be credible information, or personal information a child in danger is more willing to tell a toy than an adult.

Additionally, as we've been learning more and more, almost everything connected to WiFi is open to hacking. According to Notre Dame, Barbie is set up as a wireless access point with the name "Barbie" followed by four random characters. This makes spoofing a connection easy, making conversations susceptible to surveillance or hacking.

4. Digital labor rights--tension between anonymous workers and anonymous bosses

Now that some of the largest companies in the world are completely digital, potential labor implications are popping up. For example, workers in a warehouse can be essentially "tracked" via the technology they use to complete their job. Using technology that comes built-in to standard warehouse scanners, employers can tell if an employee is "inactive" for just a minute or two.

The additional challenge of online labor brokerages is part of this list item. This is when workers log on to a website and pick tasks from long listings. Reportedly, wage theft runs rampant on sites like these.

5. Head transplants--a procedure that one doctor has promised to develop by 2017

Italian physician Dr. Sergio Canevero has promised to perform the world's first head transplant by 2017. In two published medical papers, Canevero has proposed head transplantation thanks to new technology. The technology allows for the body to be cooled during surgery, and there are new tools that create a cleaner cut on the spinal cord and machines that allow people to be on bypass during surgery.

However, experts in the U.S. are extremely skeptical that the procedure is feasible and say it would be unethical to perform the procedure when it hasn't been proven in animal studies. The most difficult part of the procedure would be fusing together the spinal cords of the body patient and the head patient. U.S. researchers have pointed out that if that technology already existed, they would be using it on paralyzed patients with spinal cord injuries.

Whether in 2017 or beyond, head transplants raise one overarching question--will the "new" person be the person with the original body or the person with the original head?

6. Disappearing drones--drones that deliver payloads and then disappear into thin air

DARPA's ICARUS program is driven by a vision of vanishing air vehicles that can make precise deliveries of critical supplies and then vaporize into thin air. The appeal in military circles is easy to see--unmanned delivery systems whose structural and avionics components are made with transient materials could ease the provision of water, batteries or emergency medical supplies without adding to a unit's pack-out-burden.

But, Notre Dame argues, issues arise when the technology is (inevitably) misused.

"If a drone disintegrates into nearly nothing after it's done its job (particularly if that job is nefarious, like delivering a virus), there will be no way to identify the culprit; convenient for our military but not for law enforcement trying to track criminals."

7. Artificial wombs--the potential to grow a human fetus outside a woman's body

This may be the most controversial item on the list, between the political, social and philosophical ramifications. The ability to raise a fetus outside of the human body in an artificial womb is called ectogenesis, and it's not just a speculative concept. Scientists are actively working on the technology for medical reasons, such as to save premature or high-risk babies, or to help women who are unable to conceive.

While much of the technology to start experimenting with growing a human fetus already exists, human trials are at least 10 years away due to legal and ethical implications. Would ectogenesis change the way society views women? Is birthing a sacred right for women? Will a fetus grown outside the comfort and warmth of a woman's body be okay?

8. Bone conduction for marketing--transmitting ads to your brain through your bones

Bone conduction has long been a critical asset for treatment of hearing loss, but advertisers may have found a new use for the technology. German advertising agency Sky Deustchland used bone conduction technology to transmit advertising content to public transit passengers that happened to lean their head against the window. Building on this concept, AT&T has filed patents for technology that can be used to target ads to users of mobile devices by learning their body language. Once their mobile device detects specific body language cues, the appropriate ad for the physical activity is sent to the user. Information can also be transmitted via the skin, another technology being investigated.

9. Lethal cyber weapons--a computer program capable of causing a real explosion

In 2015, U.S. Cyber Command contracted out a $460 million project to the private sector to produce "lethal cyber weapons," or logic bombs with the ability to cause critical infrastructure to self-destruct. The Department of Defense said they consider these cyber weapons legal for three situations: triggering a nuclear plant meltdown, opening a dam upstream from a populated area, and disabling air traffic control services.

Notre Dame raises a few questions we've heard before: What sort of delicate math is required to show that the outcome legitimates the means? What kind of violence is acceptable to protect the lives of domestic soldiers and citizens? What if the aggressors are non-state actors? Can we employ these tactics in self-defense? Who can be attacked in a cyber-war?

10. Exoskeletons for the elderly--technology that aids labor but postpones retirement

On a global scale, current birthrates are decreasing and the population is getting older. According to WHO, in 2050, there will be more than two billion people over age 60. Japan is already feeling the pressures of an aging workforce, so they're equipping their employees with artificial super strength.

Tokyo's Haneda Airport has partnered with robotics company Cyberdyne to equip its staff with robotic exoskeletons that can assist with the grueling practice of lifting luggage. Normally, those duties would be assigned to younger staff members--but there are none. Cyberdyne's HAL for Labor Support sits on the user's waist and picks up bioelectric signals from his or her muscles to aid movement. A person weighing roughly 110 lb could pick up a 45-lb suitcase with ease, although the device can be ramped up even higher for added strength.

But, do you really want to see great-grandma hauling 45 pounds of luggage while looking like a robot?
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Author:Taylor, Michelle
Publication:Laboratory Equipment
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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