Stinson indirectly mentions the game that (half-jokingly) models philosopher Nick Bostrom's speculations about an AI whose top-level goal is making paper clips. Which reminds me, I'd promised/threatened a link to:
Patents and Medical Innovation (05.10.15)
We won't be discussing issues related to intellectual property until after the midterm. Still, I thought I'd pass along the following, since it provides an unusually clear and fairly even-handed account of its topic:
Legislation proposed by the government is about to change which government officials can access your online information and on what grounds. The following editorial from the Toronto Star outlines some fo these changes and why they might be worrying.
Here's a taste of the 'cornucopian' [< a remarkably biased, ad hominem Wikipedia article] view of technology espoused by Simon:
Up from the Archives: 'Unknown Unknowns' -- The Tacoma Narrows Bridge (20.09.14)
As mentioned in class the other day... (Sorry about the ads. And the music)
Bentham on Sex (03.07.14)
Since we were talking about him in class yesterday, I though I'd pass along the following (which I happened across later that afternoon). It is a book reivew of a new edition of some Bentham's long-supressed writings on sexuality which, besides the reivew part, provides a nice overview of utilitarianism and some insight into Bentham's character.
Gene Patents and the Cost of Genetic Tests (21.05.13)
BRCA1 and BRCA2 are 'tumor supressor' genes, mutations in which are associated with early onset breast cancer. In the U.S., tests for BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations can cost up to US$ 4,000. Yet a the same time, the cost to sequence an individual's entire genome (~ 20,000 genes) has been plummeting--lately down into the range of about $1,000. What explains the disparity? In a nutshell: Intellectual property rights. We'll be looking briefly at the story of Myriad Genetics and the BRCA1 and 2 genes later in the course. For a start, however, the article below is I think both intrinsically interesting and provides some useful background information for persons interested in this sort of thing.
Lanier used to be something of an ubuttoned enthusiast for virtual reality technologies, back in the day. In recent years he's become a bit more pessimistic, particularly about the prospects for maintaining human freedom and dignity in the face of technological development.
George Carlin: Rights (02.13.13)
Since it came up in class today, here is the relevant routine from the late, great George Carlin's last HBO special It's Bad for Ya (2008). Contains strong language and adult situations: Viewer discretion is advised. I do not necessarily endorse all of the views espoused (though I would like to see a debate between Carlin and John Locke).
Implications of Act Utilitarianism (in Cartoon Form) (02.03.13)
It's too large to include with a lecture, but this cartoon from the excellent online strip Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal lays out a seemingly paradoxical implication of strict adherence to the utilitarian calculus. It's similar to (but maybe funnier than) my 'household booze budget' example discussed in class.
Midterm Exam Rescheduled (01.30.13)
In class today I asked if anyone objected to moving the date of the midterm exam originally scheduled for February 8th. Since there were no objections, be it resolved: The date of the midterm exam has been moved to February 15th. Doing this ensures that we will be finished with moral theory section of the course ahead of the exam. Study questions for the exam will be released next week.
'Unknown Unknowns': The Tacoma Narrows Bridge (01.18.13)
As mentioned in class today... (Sorry about the ads...and the music)
Since we were talking about it in class the other day, I thought I'd pass this along. (Many other responses in The Edge's annual "What Should We Be Worried About?" survey are also worth a read.)
Parental Controls for Cars (01.15.13)
Ford's new MyKey system allows parents to program the vehicle key that they give to their kids so as to limit the vehicle's maximum speed, prevent the disabling of traction control and even block 'explicit' content on the vehicle's audio system.
Ford cars get draconian parental controls (The Register, Jan 4, 2013)
When I first heard of this, my initial reaction was "that's just creepy." Upon reflection, however, I suppose a moral case could made for the MyKey system on the basis of property rights: The vehicle is the parent's (or parents') property. So, since the parent (presumably) has no obligation to let his or her kid use the car at all, the kid has no moral grounds for objecting to any limitation on the use of the car that the parent may impose. Then again, upon yet further reflection, I reckon a moral objection probably could be based on the principle of autonomy. Assuming we are talking about kids who are legally permitted to drive, we are necessarily talking about kids who are 16+ years of age. Would a parent normally take herself to be justified in censoring what a 16 year old can listen to?
Techo-Optimism II: Don Tapscott on Principles for an Open World (07.10.12)
Speaking of techno-optimism, here's a recent TED talk by author Don Tapscott on "Four Principles for the Open World." It's a little gushy for my taste. (And, really, Pachelbel's Canon for your closing montage?) But Tapscott does touch on some themes--transparency, openness, the reconfiguration of intellectual property rights--that have been and will be of interest to us in the course. (Hat tip to Justin for the pointer.)
Where are our flying cars?(06.20.12)
The anarchist anthropologist David Graeber weighs in:
Versions of Sang-Jin Bae's argument have been floating around for years--in fact, we'll be looking at one of them later on in the course. In its most general form, that argument is that technology has made some tasks just too easy, leading to both a withering of important human skills and, consequently, an increased dependency on technology. For the moment, I leave it to you to evaluate the consequences (and the actual likelihood) of a generation of 'digital illiterates':
In the last few classes, we've been discussing some rather depressing implications of uncontrolled technologcal development--specifically Hardin's 'tragedy of the commons' and McGinn's 'troubling triad'. By way of an antidote, here's a much more upbeat assessment of technogy's role in our future from space flight entrepreneur and X PRIZE chairman Peter Diamandis:
Kant in Three Minutes (02.01.12)
Since we'll be starting our discussion of Kant's moral theory in class today, I though I'd pass this along. I don't think it is quite 100% accurate, but it is pretty funny:
for Comments (06.05.10)
I've circulated via email a request for comments regarding the
course readings (you'll have received this if you are already
registered in the course). Here's the upshot:
For several years now I've used a readings
package that I designed for the course. While I have updated
the readings package from time to time, it's been a while since
the last update and, frankly, some changes are overdue. I won't
have time to effect all of those changes prior to the start
of the Spring and Summer section. An alternative to the paper
readings package, however, would be for me to make readings
available through a secured web page on the course web site.
(I've done this previously for seminar courses and, generally
speaking, students really seem to like it.)
students, the obvious advantage of making the readings available
online is that they will save the cost of the text (currently
$46.00); the obvious disadvantage is that students who prefer
to read paper copies then bear the cost of printing out those
copies themselves. Moreover, to the extent that students learn
better reading from paper than from the screen (since it much
easier to markup and make annotations on paper), this might
imply a further disadvantage inasmuch as some students won't
print out readings due to printing costs. (On the other hand,
it's fair to mention that, during the Spring and Summer Session,
we typically don't cover everything in the readings package.
So, if we go with the existing edition of the readings package,
you'll be paying for some readings that you may not use.)
my perspective, making the readings available online has several
advantages: I'll have an opportunity to make some of the necessary
changes without having to account for the lead time required
by Printing Services (or, for that matter, the hassle of getting
CanCopy clearance for individual readings). The online alternative
also has the advantage of allowing for greater flexibility,
both in the upcoming iteration of the course and (possibly)
we have two options: A) Use the current (v 1.04) version of
the paper text or B) Make the readings available via the course
web site. Given that I have to make a decision pretty much right
away, please let me
know your views ASAP.
Singer on Rationing Health Care (16.07.09)
It seems to be the week for this sort of thing (no surprise,
really given the debate currently going on in the U.S.). Here
[New York Times], in any case, is an
explicitly utilitarian perspective perspective on technology
and health care costs from Peter Singer (the same one mentioned
previously in class).
Price of Innovation: Human vs. Vetrinary Health Care
of good, useful ideas are downright obvious--once somebody has
thought of them. Yesterday in class we were discussing, inter
alia, the role of what McGinn calls 'technological maximality'
as a factor in rising health care costs. In her blog at The
Atlantic, economist Megan McArdle recently
provided an excellent (and, once you think of it, obvious)
comparison that helps to put the relative contribution of technological
innovation to rising health care costs into perspective. Note
graph toward the middle of her post. Had I seen this before
yesterday's lecture, it definitely would have been included.
Exam and SEEQ Evaluations (14.07.09)
most of you have already looked up this information for yourselves,
but I thought I'd point out that according to the Exam
Schedule, the final exam for this section will NOT be held
in AGRIC 2E25, but in ARCH 112. The date for
the exam, of course, is 2:00 PM, Thursday July 23rd.
Also, depsite what you may have read in the broadcast e-mail
of a few days ago, the SEEQ evaluation for the course will in
fact remain available until midnight, July 22nd.
Case You Wanted It: Still More Julian Simon (14.07.09)
in class, one of the views that we were considering was the
'cornucopian' (and implicitly technocratic) perspective of the
American economist Julian Simon. Here he is explaining his views
in greater (possibly excruciating, depending on your tastes)
detail. Forgive the cheesy 80s-style graphics. Once he gets
warmed up, his explanation really does get quite interesting.
Survey Study on Ethics of Cognitive Enhancement Technologies
A former student of mine, Rana
Ahmad, now pursuing her Ph.D. at W.
Maurice Young Centre for Applied Ethics at the University
of British Columbia, would like your help with a survey study
investigating people's views about cognitive enhancement technologies.
We'll be discussing this sort of thing in connection with biosynthetic
compounds later on in the course. If you are interested in the
topic or if you'd just like to do Rana and me a favour (provided
you are also 19 years of age or older), I encourage you to take
part in the survey you'll find here:
You will need to create a new account in order participate (see
link on the lower left). The survey itself will take only about
10 to 15 minutes of your time and, if you consider your answers
carefully, it provides some interesting food for thought.
Julian Simon (23.09.08)
In a few days, in connection with Garrett Hardin and the Tragedy
of the Commons, I'm going to be saying a few things in the lectures
(not all of them favourable) about Julian Simon's 'greatest
resource' idea. In the old video below (seems to date from the
mid- to late 80s) Simon does a pretty good job of explaining
This is not required viewing for the course, but I thought it
might be interesting, especially for students who aren't familiar
with Simon's sort of libertarian economic views.
Q4 Section (02)
Kids, It's Captain Copyright! (08.09.06)
course readings package costs as much as it does largely due
to fees payable to an outfit called Access Canada (formerly
CanCopy) for each article included. Often enough, the authors
of those articles never see a penny from these fees, since they
have assigned (or their publisher has assumed) copyright control.
(Compare this with the philosophical justifications of intellectual
property rights that we will be considering in the next few
the Canadian Library Association has just released an open
letter to Access Canada (PDF link) which suggests that the
Captain Copyright campaign may in fact be a violation of Quebec
law and Canadian advertising guidelines.
(But, in a way, it's not too surprising that the structures
have an 'organic' sort of regularity. Since while the content
of particular spam messages is obviously fairly unpredictable,
there also will be a fair degree of regularity in that content
over multiple messages -- the ACSII strings for "Viagra,"
"penis enlargement," "Nigerian bank," etc.
Dragulescu's gimmick is in that respect a bit like the use of
masks in stochastic music composition.)
Keeners (and others students who want to be well-prepared) should
note that the first three readings for the course are available
in the Online Readings section.
Why not get an early start on the course while you nurse your
New Year's Eve hangover?
Global Warming: Dateline 6,000 BCE
In class the other day, in connection with Jonas, I mentioned
some high-consequence human actions in the distant past (which,
it was suggested, might be morally mitigated because the people
involved didn't know enough to anticipate what those consequences
Here's another example (albeit somewhat speculative) centered
on research by William Ruddiman from the University of Virginia:
Some interested parties (e.g., advocates for the fossil fuel
industry) have already leapt on the idea that "maybe global
warming is a good thing." That debate, I think, is properly
left to the experts. From a moral point of view, however, I'd
suggest that Ruddiman's hypothesis is not simply a "lesson
in humility" but a lesson in the full extent of human responsibility
for the fate of the planet as well.
of Human Genome Patented in the U.S.
first systematic study matching U.S. gene patents to the human
genome appeared earlier this month in the journal Science.
The link below summarizes the study's findings. And to think
that only a decade ago all this was thought to be fear-mongering