Monday, August 29, 2011

Living in the future means thinking like an sf writer

I recently read an absolutely fascinating paper at the Brookings Institution site, Endowed by Their Creator?: The Future of Constitutional Personhood, by James Boyle, a law professor at Duke University, that takes up an issue that the author suggests might be looming-- viz., the legal and ethical treatment of human/nonhuman animal hybrids and sentient AIs. He begins with a quote from an article in the Emory Law Journal by Scott Bennett, "Chimera and the Continuum of Humanity: Erasing the Line of Constitutional Personhood":
Presently, Irving Weissman, the director of Stanford University's Institute of Cancer/Stem Cell Biology and Medicine, is contemplating pushing the envelope of chimera research even further by producing human-mouse chimera whose brains would be composed of one hundred percent human cells. Weissman notes that the mice would be carefully watched: if they developed a mouse brain architecture, they would be used for research, but if they developed a human brain architecture or any hint of humanness, they would be killed.
As Boyle writes,
In the coming century, it is overwhelmingly likely that constitutional law will have to classify artificially created entities that have some but not all of the attributes we associate with human beings. They may look like human beings, but have a genome that is very different. Conversely, they may look very different, while genomic analysis reveals almost perfect genetic similarity. They may be physically dissimilar to all biological life forms--computer-based intelligences, for example--yet able to engage in sustained unstructured communication in a way that mimics human interaction so precisely as to make differentiation impossible without physical examination. They may strongly resemble other species, and yet be genetically modified in ways that boost the characteristics we regard as distinctively human--such as the ability to use human language and to solve problems that, today, only humans can solve. They may have the ability to feel pain, to make something that we could call plans, to solve problems that we could not, and even to reproduce. (Some would argue that non-human animals already possess all of those capabilities, and look how we treat them.) They may use language to make legal claims on us, as Hal does, or be mute and yet have others who intervene claiming to represent them. Their creators may claim them as property, perhaps even patented property, while critics level charges of slavery. In some cases, they may pose threats as well as jurisprudential challenges; the theme of the creation which turns on its creators runs from Frankenstein to Skynet, the rogue computer network from The Terminator. Yet repression, too may breed a violent reaction: the story of the enslaved un-person who, denied recourse by the state, redeems his personhood in blood may not have ended with Toussaint L'Ouverture. How will, and how should, constitutional law meet these challenges?
Boyle lists some of the best known genetic experimentation resulting in hybrid creatures, some of which have been used for drug testing, some as a source for harvesting stem cells, some for creating organs that can be transplanted into humans (i.e., as living organ banks). As quoted above, he says that his point is a "simple" one: "In the coming century it is overwhelmingly likely that constitutional law will have to classify artificially created entities that have some but not all of the attirbutes we associate with human beings." The rest of his paper, though, shows that it's not a "simple" one at all.

My heart sinks at the thought. Consider the state of the public sphere in the 21st-century US. Given that Guantanamo continues on, its capricious horrors and tortures all rubber-stamped by the Justice Department, its constinued existence supported by the very POTUS who claimed, on the campaign trail, that one of his first acts as POTUS would be shut that chamber of horrors down; given that so many people don't consider all human beings deserving of human rights; given the state of our many, many prisons and politicians' continued reveling in executing people known to be innocent of crimes they've been convicted of; and given that the most mundane policies of cities--that of how they treat people who lack housing-- which a UN report recently denounced as a widespread violation of human rights: I don't see a morally decent outcome resulting.

Boyle notes that collectively, in the US, we "disagree radically on the status of a fetus and... about the individual in a coma with no brain stem activity at all. How much harder will it be to come to agreement on the status of a chimeric construct or an artificial intelligence?" Boyle's exploration of this question is well worth reading, and draws interestingly on Turing's "Computing Machinery and Intelligence" as well as on a paper about the Turing test that mischievously suggests that Turing himself might not have passed it.

Boyle also discusses the difficulty of establishing "species identity"-- given how similar, genetically, humans are to a huge range of animals and the contentiousness of the question of which differences matter and which don't. When he poses the question of whether the Constitution "protects artificial entities," he cannily points out that according to the Supreme Court, it does: having long ago granted corporations legal personhood-- and then goes on to note that this is probably not a train of reasoning we want to follow: "The history of corporate personhood is hardly one of the Constitution's shining moments. Is its confused and partisan process of pragmatic muddling the best we can do with the more morally wrenching questions that the future can bring us?" He concludes with a reflection on Turing's article: "The most striking conclusion of Alan Turing's article may not be how difficult it is to identify machine consciousness or personhood but how uncertain we are about the boundaries of our own."

You can download a pdf of Boyle's entire paper here.

Not only must constitutional lawyers be thinking science fictionally, but apparently farmers using genetically modfied seed to grow corn for producing ethanol need to be doing so, too. It looks as though Monsanto's genetically modified corn is leading to super-resistant insects (corn borers and rootworms). Farmers using such seed are supposed to do certain things to prevent resistance from developing, but apparently are not, or are taking inadequate measures.

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