On the ethics of robot roaches

+John Baez worries that +Backyard Brains dodges the hard questions in their ethics statement.

I’m not sure they entirely dodge the ethics question, “when is it okay to turn animals into RC cyborgs?” By saying it isn’t a “toy” and emphasizing its educational applications, they’re distinguishing between frivolous and constructive uses of the tool. If you’re just messing around for entertainment, or if you have some malicious purpose (like a cyborg roach based bank heist) then it’s probably not okay. Turning animals into cyborgs is okay when the applications are constructive and educational: when students learn, when knowledge grows. This is a common response from scientists to questions of animal experimentation: to point at the benefits generated by the research.

The distinction between frivolous “toys” and constructive uses might be clear enough, but as stated it’s only a rule of thumb. The harder question is how to distinguish the two. One might be skeptical that it’s possible to state the ethical rule any more clearly than this. After all, horribly inhumane and unethical acts have been conducted in the name of science, so obviously science itself can’t be cover for doing whatever you want.

The developers also point to high schools and educators mentoring students on their use of these techniques. Indeed, they seem to be marketing primarily to educational institutions aiming to buy RoboRoaches in bulk. In effect, this diffuses the ethical questions by putting responsibility on the institutions and educators overseeing their use. Unfortunately, this doesn’t give those institutions much of a guideline for making that decision themselves. It also somewhat spoils the DIY-ness of “backyard brains”.

I do appreciate that they have a dedicated discussion of the ethics at stake! Although I agree that they don’t nail down the ethics questions with complete satisfaction (and they admit as much), their procedures and approach do seem to be in line with mainstream scientific practice, which does allow for these kinds of experiments. Here’s a cyborg rat from 2008.

So I’m not entirely sure that it should fall on the shoulders of Backyard Brains to settle these ethics questions. Backyard Brains have a responsibility to stay within scientific standards, and to be sensitive to ethical issues, and they seem to be doing that. If there are ethical problems with the techniques, perhaps they are better addressed by the scientific community more generally.

The “problem” is that the techniques of science are becoming democratized, so that people can experiment themselves without institutional oversight. The “problem” of radical democratization is characteristic of the digital age, and biohacking is no exception. Of course, institutional oversight was no guarantee against ethical violations, but they at least provide a framework for addressing and resolving ethical issues that may arise. When people are running these experiments in their back yards, though, all bets are off. Or are they? Can there be a board of ethical review for citizen science? How would such a thing even work, without undermining the very virtues of democratization?

I’ll be interested to see the public react to an apparently frivolous use of cyborg roaches- a youtube video of a roach recreation of the Battle of Helms Deep (or whatever) might be very popular. Instead of instigating ethical outrage, it might just as well trigger more curiosity and experimentation, and more apparently frivolous uses. I’m not sure we’ll see much ethical concern from the public until people start experimenting on bigger mammals or humans– and even then, we might enjoy giving up some of our autonomy, in some circumstances. If I could install a chip that would exchange bodily autonomy for the ability to dance or to know kung fu or just the ability to exercise regularly, I’m not sure I’d say no.

These ethical questions aren’t going away. Autonomy sits at the heart of a variety of convergent technologies and social trends: robotics, AI, social networking, quantified selves, mass surveillance, social inequality. RoboRoaches is a wonderful microcosm of our time.

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