Observing Thinking

Observing Thinking
Observing Thinking

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Potpourri: Revisiting Smartphones, Musing on Cyborgs and Editing DNA

I feel that it’s necessary to attempt to clear up any misunderstandings concerning my previous column, “Smartphones more distracting, isolating than useful” . The title I originally submitted was “Why I don’t own a Smartphone” and my intent was to explain why smartphones are not for me, mainly because I realize how easily distracted I am. I most certainly did not wish to imply that smartphones should be shunned by everyone --- only that one must consider the downsides as well as the many upsides. Recall that the March 8, 2015 column, “”Accentuate the Positive...“ was entirely devoted to singing the praises of how and why smartphones are the perfect technology for advising troubled teens. So, one more time: if you think you can handle the downsides, then dive in but please weigh the decision carefully. As our elders have advised:. Look before you Leap.

More to the point, I stumbled onto a TED Talk: “Amber Case: We are all cyborgs now” which deals with much the same issues I raised in “Why I don’t Own a Smartphone” and extends it into the field of “cyborg anthropology”. Quite a mouthful. She begins her talk with the startling pronouncement, “ I would like to tell you all that you are all actually cyborgs, but not the cyborgs that you think. You're not RoboCop, and you're not Terminator, but you're cyborgs every time you look at a computer screen or use one of your cell phone devices.”

She goes on to give the classical definition of the word Cyborg: "an organism to which exogenous (fancy word for ‘outside the system’) components have been added for the purpose of adapting to new environments." and, from an anthropological perspective, describes how humans have pretty much always used tools of one kind or another but this new tool, this network of computers comprising the Internet, is different. Up until the dawn of the digital computer age (circa 1940) humanity used tools that extended physical limitations --- such as stone chisels, trebuchets and jet planes. This newest tool, the computer, the heart of the Internet, extends our minds. This idea is not new --- indeed Doug Engelbart (http://www.dougengelbart.org/pubs/augment-3906.html) referred to these new machines as “mind augmenters”. and Vannevar Bush: before him explored this idea shortly after World War II.


Space limits the number of insights Amber Case presents so it would be well worth your time to search for “ Amber Case: We are all cyborgs now.” It’s less than 8 minutes and it’s what Infotainment ought to be: educational, enlightening and enjoyable.

While I certainly am not an expert in molecular biology, it seems to me that “editing dna in human embryos” qualifies as an ethical issue between technology and society. If we look at it from a computer science viewpoint, the term “edit” is usually associated with files of text, graphics, music and the like ---certainly not human dna! For example, when I edit a text file, there are only three operations that can be performed: Insert, Delete and Replace (actually only two as Replace can be simulated by applying Delete and Insert appropriately but it’s convenient for the user to have a separate Replace operation).As an added bonus, most modern word processor apps provide an “UnDo” operation as well.

As we all know from our experience with Word processors, if we make a mistake while editing, it is possible, even easy, to correct the mistake. Not so (so far) when editing the dna of a human gene and this could lead to unintended consequences. So modifying a gene’s dna incorrectly is much much more than an “OOPS!” moment. While it is true that scientists usually have a good idea of the intended outcomes of an experiment there’s always that, no matter how minute, possibility of a disaster. Let’s hope that nothing goes wrong. For the gory details point your browser at: http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2015/09/18/441408880/british-scientists-seek-permission-to-edit-dna-in-human-embryos

No comments:

Post a Comment

Search This Blog