Rising tigers

Saw these two different stories recently:


What struck me here was the bit in the second article, mentioning that the head transplant doctor is sponsored by China. Recently, another bit of Chinese science made news when Chinese doctors meddled with embryonic genes, creating the world’s first designer babies. Both this and the head transplant thing would have raised lots of ethical concerns in the west.

And thus, what we learn from this is that the Chinese are willing to do research and technology that we in the west would be too squeamish about. Which in turn means they are sooner or later going to leave us far behind.

I don’t know if that matters, and if so, what should be done about it. I’m sure all our critical minds here will have plenty to say about the issue.

I think you’re right. Call me psycho, but the West’s concern with far too much ethical mumbo-jumbo will be its eventual undoing, scientifically/technologically speaking, at least in some fields.

When you look at those concerns, alarms, and points of worry more closely, you’ll find more often than not that they’re driven primarily by superstition and fear of the unknown, by what adverse things might or could happen if we allow so-and-so to proceed, rather than by convincing rationales that would support an inhibition on any firm ethical grounds. While it’s understandable in light of some of the atrocities that have occurred in the pursuit of knowledge, it doesn’t make any sort of persuasive case for the bend-over-backward kneejerk of which we’re seeing more and more. Of course, the kicker is that many of the apparent ethical uncertainties can only be properly resolved if someone actually tries the very thing about which we might entertain some ethical reservations on little more than an ill-defined feeling of unease. If we err too much on the side of caution, we hobble our own progress.

The case of Barry Marshall, who out of frustration downed a beaker of cultured H.pylori, is tangentially relevant and instructive. Our extant ethics committees would have tied his hands for years, as they probably would have Chris Barnard’s. Such mavericks are the stuff of progress, and though the Law of Unintended/Undesirable/Unanticipated Consequences may loom large, I’d like to think that we’ve learnt a few significant ethical lessons along the path of our recent history, so that we can be more discretionary in our ethical assessments of research proposals. Much of the trouble is that there’s a strong tendency to apply current mores to terra incognita.


Yup, and of course the old canard about people playing God.

Now it is true that with some technologies there may well be concerns. Nassim Taleb makes a good point: if you meddle with complex systems that you do not understand, you are playing with fire. Which is one reason why our adding huge amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere is not the wisest of ideas. Taleb is even opposed to genetic engineering on these same grounds, though on that issue I think he is too paranoid.

Anyway, I’m not too sure where one should draw the line, but it’s somewhat hypothetical anyway, because in today’s world, if something can be done, someone is going to do it, whether it is wise or not, whether it is ethical or not, and whether it is legal or not.

Here’s another example:

On another forum someone tells me this sort of technology is often kept under lock and key “to prevent abuses.” It’s not difficult to see how it could be abused: imagine the fake news footage you can make with it, or the sickest of ultra-violence and kiddie porn and snuff films, or fake miracles, or whatever else.

But you can’t stop it; either it will leak, or someone else will invent it independently. One positive development might be that in a world completely flooded with fake footage, people might actually quickly learn not to naively believe everything they think they see anymore. Plus, I can’t wait for the remake of Downfall, starring Hitler as himself… :slight_smile:

I’ve been mulling over this point for a few days now, and come to the conclusion that it’s a bit wobbly. For one thing, there’s no such thing as a “non-complex” (i.e., simple) system in nature because there is a relationship, however tenuous, among all things. That sounds suspiciously like Lovelock and his Gaia overreach, but that’s not where I’m going. It means merely that there’s a continuum of diminishingly significant influences on any macroscopic effect that we can quantify in some way. And yet, we successfully meddle with many complex systems because we have winnowed out the determinant factors that allow us to so meddle. It would therefore, it seems to me, be foolish to halt research on systems where we’re not so sure.

For another, how can we hope to illuminate the inner workings of any complex system if we’re petrified of probing its operant characteristics? I’m not suggesting that we throw caution to the wind, but a hands-off approach because we might unleash an unexpected demon just strikes me as too much of the old mediaeval mysticism where Catholic orthodoxy held sway. In any case, Taleb’s point about CO₂ appears to conflate focussed small-scale scientific endeavours with mass political and business interests. The two are decidedly different: politicians are businessmen of an especially unsavoury stripe (even when their interests aren’t primarily pecuniary), and businessmen aren’t scientists, whereas scientists mostly care about the facts and how these are best explained. In capitalist democracies, politicians care about votes, which means they care about campaign funding, which in turn means aligning themselves with business interests—which is all about as far removed from wanting to pursue science and facts as it can be.

My third reservation is that we can “meddle” with just about anything as long as we do so in an appropriately measured way. For by far the most applied research, we have a pretty good a priori idea where a study might lead us. Remember the whole Large Hadron Collider furore about smashing particles together at unprecedented energies in pursuit of the Higgs boson? The doomsayers were out in their numbers, predicting apocalypse and Armageddon, but you didn’t find any reputable physicists among them. That’s because they had a much deeper understanding of the reality than any wannabe End-of-the-World advocates.

The bottom line is that the world has lost its discernment. We listen with equal zeal to both false prophets and to studious, measured experts, and think that we can decide the real issue, depending on whose story we like most.


Even a few decades ago it was possible for the average person to become reasonably informed on almost any issue. Nowadays, it has become very difficult, and paranoia kicks in easier. Or so it seems to me.

I can’t quite work out whether Taleb is a genius or a loon or a bit of both. Same goes for other recent commentators such as Jordan Peterson and Yuval Harari.

Taleb doesn’t really make it any easier for anyone to follow him either because of his often unpleasant manners, and his tendency to completely dismiss anyone with whom he has even the slightest difference of opinion. Thus even prominent thinkers like Dawkins and Pinker are waved away as “entertainers” and so on. His criticisms of both may have validity, but does that really mean nothing they say is at all useful? He’s also vehemently opposed to the very existence of the E.U. (and thus an enthusiastic Brexiteer), and, perhaps most bizarrely, an ardent proponent of America’s absurdist system of units of measurement. On all of these things he may have some point, but he tends to be evasive or obscure when trying to make it, instead choosing to merely insult anyone who questions him. On many other matters he seems to me to be very clever indeed. So I’m not too sure what to make of his ideas! Perhaps we’ll soon see: if Brexit goes ahead and turns into a clusterfuck, will Taleb admit he was in error or not? That is usually a good indicator…

The same goes for Peterson, who manages to brilliantly cut through some currently popular bullshit, but can be every bit as vague and and indeed almost mystical.

Well, I recently got hold of both Pinker’s “Better angels” and Peterson’s “12 rules for life” so perhaps I’ll be able to judge for myself. For the moment I am taking a week or two off with a Steve King novel or two. :slight_smile:

Actually fake AI created videographic porn of famous people is already starting to become a problem.

But you can't stop it; either it will leak, or someone else will invent it independently.

Exactly. Pearl clutchers are left behind. The unfortunate side-effect is they often like to drag the rest a bit slower too. Hell even today we have nuclear energy activists who routinely make building anything nuclear nigh-impossible. And that’s OLD technology.

One positive development might be that in a world completely flooded with fake footage, people might actually quickly learn not to naively believe everything they think they see anymore.

… if facebook is any indication, you are sadly incorrect.

One will have to see. At the moment the fake news is actually still relatively rare compared to how it’s going to be once anyone and his dog can whip up porn movies of Trump and Putin on his laptop. In a world completely flooded with that, perhaps people will not pay it much attention anymore, but who knows.

Harari notes that instead of teaching kids the traditional stuff at school they should be taught skills like critical thinking. He may have a point, only I have my doubts whether it is something that can be taught…