Tuesday, February 9, 2016

AI and the Rise of Babybots: Book Review of Louisa Hall’s Speak

By Katie Strong, PhD

“Why should I be punished for the direction of our planet’s spin? With or without my intervention, we were headed towards robots,” writes Stephen Chinn, a main character in the novel Speak by Louisa Hall. Stephen has been imprisoned for his creation of robots deemed illegally lifelike, and in a brief moment of recrimination when writing his memoir from prison, he continues, “You blame me for the fact that your daughters found their mechanical dolls more human than you, but is it my fault, for making a doll too human? Or your fault, for being too mechanical?” 

The dolls that resemble humans are referred to as “babybots,” robots with minds that deviate only 10% from human thought and have the ability to process sensory information. Speak tells the story of how babybots come into being and then describes the aftermath once they have been deemed harmful and removed from society. The book moves between character’s stories taking place in four different time periods, from the 16th century to 2040, and the plot is told through letters, court transcripts, and diary selections from five main characters. Through these various first-person views, pieces of the story behind babybots and the rise of artificial intelligence are made clear.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Emotions without Emotion: A Challenge for the Neurophilosophy and Neuroscience of Emotion

By Louis Charland

Louis C. Charland is Professor in the Departments of Philosophy, Psychiatry, and the School of Health Studies, at Western University in London, Canada. He is also an International Partner Investigator with the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, based at the University of Western Australia, in Perth, Australia.

Many scholars of the affective domain now consider “emotion” to be the leading keyword of the philosophy of emotion and the affective sciences. Indeed, many major journals and books in the area refer directly to “emotion” in their titles: for example, Emotion Review, Cognition and Emotion, The Emotional Brain (Le Doux 1996), Cognitive Neuroscience of Emotion (Lane & Nadel 2002), and The Emotional Life of your Brain (Davidson & Begley 2012). At times, “feeling,” “mood,” “affect,” and “sentiment” are argued to be close contenders, but such challenges are normally formulated by contrasting their explanatory promise, and their theoretical status, with “emotion.” Historically, debates about the nature of affective terms and posits used to revolve, in conceptual orbit, around the term “passion” and its many variants (Dixon 2003). In our new emotion-centric universe, everything seems to revolve around “emotion” and its many variants.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Consumer Neuroscience vs. Skepticism: An Inside Look at the Challenges of a Novel Field

By Ibrahima E. Diallo

Neuromarketing image courtesy of flickr user cmcbrown 
A few years ago, I read a New York Times article that really caught my attention. The article detailed the emergence of a technique that would allow marketers to “make ads that whisper to the brain.” The notion that researchers could probe my mind seemed like an exciting yet frightening proposition. As I read the article, it piqued my interest to learn more about “neuromarketing.”

What is neuromarketing and how does it work?

Consumer Neuroscience, also commonly referred to as Neuromarketing, is a relatively novel field, which uses neurophysiological techniques, such as brain imaging and electroencephalography, in order to gain insight on the decision-making process of the consumer. Consumer Neuroscience often utilizes not only brain imaging techniques, but also biometrics to gather data related to consumer behavior and decision-making (Ariely & Berns 2010). The data collected is used to gauge cognitive interest, memory activation, and emotional engagement in consumers to advertising stimuli; these data are used to optimize the advertisements and advertisement-related materials (Trabulsi et al. 2015). One way neuroimaging data for consumers is used is to shorten commercial advertisements to the parts that are the most impactful and engaging components to the consumer; this is an approach that saves a lot of money for company advertising campaigns since commercial slots can be costly (Trabulsi et al. 2015).

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Integration without reduction: What the philosophy of empathy can learn from mirror neurons

by Georgina Campelia

Georgina Campelia is currently a Ph.D. Candidate in Philosophy at the Graduate Center, CUNY, working under the supervision of Virginia Held. Her dissertation, “Virtue’s Web: The Virtue of Empathic Attunement and the Need for a Relational Foundation,” develops an account of empathic attunement, defends its status as a virtue, and sketches a relational ontology of virtue that would better accommodate the relationality of this and other important virtues.

Georgina is currently an affiliate instructor at the Montefiore Einstein Center for Bioethics, where she teaches in their Certificate and Masters Programs. She also serves on the Steering Committee at the New York Society for Women and Philosophy (NYSWIP) and is a co-organizer of SWIPshop (a workshop for feminist philosophy).

As the lack of empathy in the world has become particularly apparent and troubling in light of the resistance to offering asylum for Muslim refugees (see this recent article from The Guardian), perhaps it makes sense that the study of empathy is booming (Coplan, 2014; Decety, 2012; de Waal, 2009). Philosophers question and defend its moral worth (Bloom, 2014), psychologists and primatologists consider its nature and origin (Hoffman, 2000; Waal, 2012), and neuroscientists explore its metaphysical structure (Singer, 2009; Zaki & Ochsner, 2012). Empathy offers a distinctive ground for interdisciplinary work and, yet, little has been done to advance cross-field communication. While some popular work offers broadly incorporated perspectives (de Waal, 2009), and there are some anthologies that include multiple disciplines (Coplan & Goldie, 2014; Decety, 2012), there is room for more robustly integrated research.

Image of a baby macaque imitating facial expressions, courtesy of Wikimedia.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

“Fetal assault” and later environment effects on child development: using neuroscience as a tool for political policy

By Carlie Hoffman

Premature infant, courtesy of Wikipedia
“Crack babies,” “crack kids,” and the “lost generation” were all terms used by the public and the press in the 1980s and 1990s to describe children born to mothers who used crack-cocaine during pregnancy. Supported and spurred on by the media’s interpretation of preliminary research performed by Dr. Ira Chasnoff, among others, these children were often born prematurely, had tremors and a small head circumference, and, based on their description in the press, were expected to have neurobehavioral deficits, reduced intelligence, and deficits in social skills. These children were also anticipated to cost educational and social systems thousands of dollars as they matured and entered into schools and eventually the workforce.

Yet, after additional studies have been conducted and as the “crack babies” have grown into adolescents and young adults, it has been found that the negative outcomes widely described by the media were overreaching and unsupported. “Crack babies” did not, in fact, present evidence of severe, broad problems with social development and cognitive functioning and did not prove to have the predicted detrimental social and financial effects on the school system. Instead, many of these children have grown into successful adults over the past two decades. Dr. Claire Coles, a researcher responsible for producing the first studies that challenged Chasnoff’s findings, thought the era of the “crack baby” had finally come to an end. However, as Coles discussed during the December Neuroethics and Neuroscience in the News journal club, “crack babies” and similar stories about children exposed to opiates, have resurged in recent media publications (seen here and here) and are rearing their heads once again.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Responsibility: Revis(ion)ing brains via cognitive enhancement

By Shweta Sahu

The Statue of Liberty, an iconic symbol of
American opportunity; courtesy of Wikipedia
Most every parent wants their child to grow up to be a neurosurgeon, a lawyer, or the next gen Mark Zuckerberg. That was especially true in my case, as a first generation child. When I was two, my parents came to the United States, "the land of opportunity," seeking the success that they had only heard about in India. I grew up hearing their stories of hardship when they first moved here with an infant, without a car, without any extended family, and knowing very little working English. I witnessed them struggle tirelessly to make a life for themselves and they always said that without education you are nothing and will be no one. As a child, while my friends would go to sleepovers and camping trips with friends, my dad would spend time checking my math problems on the white board at home and my mom would make me spell 50 words correctly every night. But even with all that pressure, I never had the best GPA, I had to work incredibly hard to stay above the class average, and I almost always fell short of their expectations. So given the opportunity, would my parents have tried to enhance my cognitive ability?

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The freedom to become an addict: The ethical implications of addiction vaccines

by Tabitha Moses 

Tabitha Moses, M.S., is Administrative and Research Coordinator at Lehman College, CUNY, as well as a Research Affiliate at the National Core for Neuroethics at the University of British Columbia. Tabitha earned her BA in Cognitive Science and Philosophy and MS in Biotechnology from The Johns Hopkins University. She has conducted research in the areas of addiction, mental illness, and emerging neurotechnologies. She hopes to continue her education through a joint MD/PhD in Neuroscience while maintaining a focus on neuroethics.

The introduction of “addiction vaccines” has brought with it a belief that we have the potential to cure addicts before they have ever even tried a drug. Proponents of addiction vaccines hold that they will:
  1. prevent children from becoming addicted to drugs in the future, 
  2. allow addicts to easily and safely stop using drugs, and 
  3. potentially lower the social and economic costs of addiction for society at large.
However, it is critical to be aware of the limitations and risks - both ethical and physical - of introducing these vaccines into mainstream medical care.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Combating neurohype

by Mo Costandi

Mo Costandi trained as a developmental neurobiologist and now works as a freelance writer based in London. His work has appeared in Nature, Science, and Scientific American, among other publications. He writes the Neurophilosophy blog, hosted by The Guardian, and is the author of 50 Human Brain Ideas You Really Need To Know, published by Quercus in 2013, and Neuroplasticity, forthcoming from MIT Press. Costandi also sits on the Board of Directors of the International Neuroethics Society.

In 2010, Judy Illes, president elect of the International Neuroethics Society, argued that neuroscientists need to communicate their research to the general public more effectively. Five years on, that message is still pertinent - and perhaps even more so.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Getting aHead: ethical issues facing human head transplants

By Ryan Purcell

Gummy bear head transplant, courtesy of flickr user Ella Phillips
In a widely circulated Boston Globe editorial this summer, Steven Pinker told bioethicists to “get out of the way” of scientific progress. There is abundant human suffering in the world today, he said, and the last thing we need is a bunch of hand wringing to slow down efforts to attenuate or even eliminate it. The prospect of head transplantation, however, has the potential to make us all a bit more appreciative of our local bioethicists. Even if there were not any technical issues (of which, there are of course plenty), coming to terms with the muddier personal and societal issues inherent in a procedure such as this could take quite a while. Nevertheless, Dr. Sergio Canavero is not planning to wait around and wants to perform a human head transplantation by the end of 2017. Are we ready?

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Don’t miss our Special Issue of AJOB Neuroscience: The Social Brain

By Katie Strong, PhD

If you haven’t already, be sure to read the 6.3 Issue of AJOB Neuroscience, our special issue on The Social Brain guest edited by Dr. Jean Decety. The issue centers on the biological, neuroscientific, and clinical evidence for human social cognition, along with the philosophical and ethical arguments for modifying morality and social emotions and behaviors, such as empathy, trust, and cooperativity.

The first target article by Jean Decety and Jason M. Cowell entitled “Empathy, Justice, and Moral Behavior” argues that despite the importance of empathy for driving our social lives, forging necessary social bonds, and making complex decisions, empathy alone is not enough in regards to moral resolutions and judgements. While empathy underpins cooperativity and the formation of social bonds, empathy has evolved to promote bias and in-group social preferences. The target article provides evidence that empathy does not always lead to moral decisions, and empathy often favors in-group members over out-group members. Decision making can be biased to favor relatives or a single individual over many people and for that reason, reasoning must accompany empathy. “Empathy alone is powerless in the face of rationalization and denial. But reasoning and empathy can achieve great things,” state the authors at the conclusion of the paper.