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June 27, 2007

Reverse Suicide Tourism May Lead to Extradition

We often think of “suicide tourism,” as sick or despairing people traveling to a suicide friendly venue like Switzerland to have help shuffling off this mortal coil. Several years ago, George Exoo, then a Unitarian minister, did the suicide circuit in reverse. Admitting to running the “compassionate chaplaincy” in which he counseled suicidal persons and attended their suicides, Exoo traveled to Ireland to the home of the late Rosemary Toole (at her expense) and merely watched (he says) while she swallowed some crushed pills, covered her head with a plastic bag and breathed helium until she died.

The Irish authorities were not amused, contending that Exoo violated the law, that his activities amounted to assisted suicide. In 2004, Irish authorities requested that Exoo be extradited to face trial. He has now been arrested pending an extradition hearing. He claims that he didn’t know assisted suicide was against the law in Ireland. Perhaps, but you know what they say: Ignorance of the law is no excuse.

Births of Sextuplets Highlight Risks

After years of infertility treatments and three heartbreaking miscarriages, Molly Magnani stared at the black and white monitor as an ultrasound wand moved over her belly. She saw one fetus, then another. Then — wait — were there more? (San Francisco Chronicle)

Building a Bug to Harvest Oil

Microbes dwelling in oil fields and coal beds could inspire new methods of extracting fossil fuels from the depths of the earth. That’s the hope of Ari Patrinos, a genomics pioneer who helped run the Human Genome Project and is now the president of Synthetic Genomics, a Maryland-based biotech startup founded by J. Craig Venter. Synthetic Genomics’s goal is to use genomics to develop new energy technologies.As part of a new partnership with oil giant BP, Synthetic Genomics will study microbes that naturally feed off hydrocarbons for clues into biological means of extracting and processing oil and coal. (Technology Review)

Australia: Journey just begun on stem cell research

The passing of a bill overturning a ban on therapeutic cloning in NSW allows stem cell research to start, but the journey will be “long and arduous”, a leading scientist says. (Yahoo!7 News)

Researchers May Remake Neanderthal DNA

Researchers studying Neanderthal DNA say it should be possible to construct a complete genome of the ancient hominid despite the degradation of the DNA over time. (Wired)

Pfizer wins early Nigeria battle

A Nigerian court has refused to allow more cases to be added to a lawsuit against a pharmaceutical giant accused of improper drugs trials on children. (BBC)

W.U. wins right to keep cancer research samples

Human tissue, blood and DNA samples in limbo since 2003 because of a legal battle can now be used for prostate cancer research, Washington University officials said Wednesday after winning a key ruling. (STLtoday)

Scientists call for global push to advance research in synthetic biology

With research backgrounds ranging from materials engineering to molecular biophysics, seventeen leading scientists issued a statement today announcing that, much as the discovery of DNA and creation of the transistor revolutionized science, there is a new scientific field on the brink of revolutionizing our approach to problems ranging from eco-safe energy to outbreaks of malaria. (EurekaAlert)

Docs may store info under your skin

Doctors could soon be storing essential medical information under the skin of their patients, the American Medical Association says. (Times of India)

Op-Ed: Governing genetic databases – collection, storage and use

Human genetics research is undergoing rapid and dramatic growth. Over recent years, human genetic databases, or ‘biobanks’, have burgeoned in number, size and sophistication. Many countries are developing population-scale collections, such as UK Biobank, to investigate complex common diseases. Meanwhile, both biomedical researchers and criminal forensic scientists are seeking greater collaboration, including through multinational networking and interlinking of datasets. (BioNews)

June 26, 2007

Brave New Britain: Here Comes Health Care Rationing

The UK’s National Health Care service is such a mess that some are now openly calling for explicit health care rationing. (Of course, ad hoc or sub rosa rationing already exists within the NHS.) One idea, according to this article in the Scotsman, is to make up a list of treatments that would be provided:

Alex Smallwood, from the BMA’s junior doctors’ committee, told the meeting in Torquay it needed to be accepted that rationing must take place in the NHS, but this had to be done much more openly.

“It is no longer possible to provide all the latest to absolutely everybody without notable detriment to others,” he said.

“Rationing is reduction in choice. Rationing has become a necessary evil. We need to formalise rationing to prevent an unregulated, widening, postcode-lottery of care. Government no longer has a choice.”

Dr Smallwood said that a list of acceptable treatments could be drawn up after debate and public consultation. But this might include a restriction on treating things like hernias and varicose veins – conditions with which people could live. “If somebody had a specific condition, it would be about how you could fairly say to them, ‘This is not life-threatening; there’s probably a better way we could manage this’. “When it comes to the list of conditions, it’s all about quality of life. It would be about the prioritisation of clinical need,” he added.

Well, now there’s a slippery slope. What some might say is a bad quality of life, others might say is perfectly acceptable, thank you very much for your opinion. Moreover, in the end, such approaches reward the politically powerful with complete coverage while denying those on the outskirts. We saw this in Oregon when it created its Medicaid rationing scheme that omits some life-sustaining or curative approaches for the terminally ill. The thing is: When first conceived, late stage AIDS patients were to be listed among those rationed out. But the politically potent AIDS community engaged and that exclusion was, shall we say, remedied.

I don’t blame AIDS activists, but other disease communities didn’t have the same clout, the point being that if you want to increase the politicization of medicine and turn MS patients against cancer patients, against people with profound cognitive or developmental disabilities, against people with Alzheimer’s–health care rationing based on quality of life is the way to do it.
Let’s learn from the UK and find a better way.

“Artificial Intelligence is Lost in the Woods”

Some of our discussions here at SHS about human exceptionalism have considered the prospect for Artificial Intelligence (AI), and engaged the advocacy by some that such intelligent computers or robots–meaning those that had attained true consciousness–be declared persons and accorded what today are called human rights. I have expressed profound doubt that any machine would ever be actually intelligent in this sense. This position finds articulate support in this article by Professor David Gelernter in Technology Review. It’s a very long article, too long to fully consider here, but well worth the read.

Gelernter believes that “conscious software” is “a near impossibility,” in other words, that scientists won’t ever create true AI because consciousness involves more than just rational thought, but also emotions, sensations, etc., which a machine could almost surely never truly actually experience. However, he believes that what he calls “unconscious” artificial intelligence–what might be described as capable of two-dimensional as opposed to three-dimensional responses–might be doable. He writes:

Unfortunately, AI, cognitive science, and philosophy of mind are nowhere near knowing how to build one. They are missing the most important fact about thought: the “cognitive continuum” that connects the seemingly unconnected puzzle pieces of thinking (for example analytical thought, common sense, analogical thought, free association, creativity, hallucination). The cognitive continuum explains how all these reflect different values of one quantity or parameter that I will call “mental focus” or “concentration”–which changes over the course of a day and a lifetime.

Without this cognitive continuum, AI has no comprehensive view of thought: it tends to ignore some thought modes (such as free association and dreaming), is uncertain how to integrate emotion and thought, and has made strikingly little progress in understanding analogies–which seem to underlie creativity.

Gelernter explains the difference between conscious thinking and unconscious machine thought:

In conscious thinking, you experience your thoughts. Often they are accompanied by emotions or by imagined or remembered images or other sensations. A machine with a conscious (simulated) mind can feel wonderful on the first fine day of spring and grow depressed as winter sets in. A machine that is capable only of unconscious intelligence “reads” its thoughts as if they were on cue cards. One card might say, “There’s a beautiful rose in front of you; it smells sweet.” If someone then asks this machine, “Seen any good roses lately?” it can answer, “Yes, there’s a fine specimen right in front of me.” But it has no sensation of beauty or color or fragrance. It has no experiences to back up the currency of its words. It has no inner mental life and therefore no “I,” no sense of self.

As a consequence, any computer or robot would actually not be conscious, but no matter how dazzling its responses, remain a mere machine. Such a machine would thus not present us with the problem of according it human-equivalent moral status, the prospect of which some enjoy raising in discussions of human exceptionalism and personhood theory. He also points out the folly of attempting to create a truly conscious machine, believing that if it could be accomplished, it would be cruel, pointing out that in any event, “No such mind could even grasp the word “itch.”

An unconscious machine intelligence could be a useful tool in teaching humans about the workings of the brain. But it would be just that, an inanimate object, a machine, a very valuable piece of property–nothing more.

Perhaps it is time to put the AI argument against human exceptionalism to bed and focus on ensuring that human rights apply to all of us–not just those who are able to hurdle subjective barriers to full inclusion in the moral community.

Chimera embryos have right to life, say bishops

Human-animal hybrid embryos conceived in the laboratory – so-called “chimeras” – should be regarded as human and their mothers should be allowed to give birth to them, the Roman Catholic Church said yesterday. (Telegraph)

Artificial skin ‘cuts scarring’

A prototype artificial skin used to heal wounds has been developed by British researchers. Writing in the journal Regenerative Medicine, UK-based company Intercytex said it had produced promising results in early trials. (BBC)

Stanford Symposium Planned on Minimally Conscious Patients

A symposium to be held June 28 will explore ethical ways of studying brain activity in people who hover in the periphery of consciousness, with the aim of making new recommendations to guide future research in this population. (Forbes)

Consumer Reports says more testing, regulation needed for nanotechnology

Nanotechnology promises to be the most important innovation since electricity and the internal combustion engine. But some applications might pose substantial risks to human health and the environment, according to the July issue of Consumer Reports. (Chatham Journal Weekly)

Cord Blood: To Save Or Not?

These days pregnant mothers are asked a question barely heard of ten years ago: Do you want to save your baby’s umbilical cord blood? This blood has stem cells with special properties that can heal the body from diseases like leukemia. A new study Monday shows their promise in treating type 1 diabetes. (CBS News)

Brain Device Moves Objects by Thought

Forget the clicker: A new technology in Japan could let you control electronic devices without lifting a finger simply by reading brain activity. (Discovery Channel)

Create a back-up copy of your immune system

Imagine having a spare copy of your immune system on ice, ready to replace your existing one should you fall victim to AIDS, an autoimmune disease, or have to undergo extensive chemotherapy for cancer. (New Scientist)

A Father And His Cloned Sons Are At Center Of Strong Drama

Parents make mistakes. They mess up, and if they do it badly enough, their children bear the marks of their misjudgments. So imagine a scenario in which a parent is given a second chance to raise an initially beloved child, or at least to be given a genetic duplicate of the baby who was once so lovely and perfect. (Hartford Courant)

Views sought on ethics of pre-birth testing

New Zealand hasn’t yet reached the age of designer babies but foetuses can be screened for a growing number of conditions and disorders. (


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