Category Archives: Humanities

Recommended for You

We use recommender system all the time. A website will recommend something to you based on what you’ve watched, listened to, bought or who you’ve friended on Facebook. These systems attempt to predict your preferences based on past interactions.

The systems range from simple statistical approaches like Amazon’s people who bought X also bought Y links, to complex Artificial Intelligence-based approaches that drive feed ranking on sites like Facebook.

Julian McAuley, UC San Diego Computer Science and Engineering, explores the modeling techniques behind personalized recommendation technology on the web and the different systems that we encounter.

He reminds us that we often find these recommendations a bit “creepy,” but that actually the recommender system has no human intelligence; it’s really a simple statistical process. They focus on short-term predictions but could they be adapted to make long-term predictions or estimate more subjective qualities? Would that be bad?

Watch How Do Websites Personalize Recommendations for Me? – Exploring Ethics

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The Fallen Angel

“I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel…”
— Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

Since its first (initially anonymous) publication in 1818, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein has intrigued successive generations of readers and critics while inspiring dozens of cinematic adaptations and re-imaginings. In honor of the novel’s 200th anniversary the Carsey-Wolf Center at UC Santa Barbara presented Frankenstein: Afterlives, a series of screenings and interviews that explored the lasting impact of Shelley’s Gothic masterpiece on popular culture.

The inaugural program in the series uses the 2017 biographical film Mary Shelley as a springboard for discussion about the author’s relationship to her most famous work, and the various interpretations of Frankenstein arising from scholarly examination of her life. UC Santa Barbara’s Professor Julie Carlson frames Shelley’s story, both personal and fictional, as a series of oppositions – radicalism vs. conformity, class distinctions vs. egalitarianism, intellect vs. imagination, pragmatism vs. idealism, art vs. commerce – while noting that it is only fairly recently that scholars and commentators have begun to fully grasp the complexities of Shelley’s life and work. Frankenstein is key to any such discussion, not merely because of its iconic status but because it was one of the first popular texts to foreground the post-Enlightenment confluence of art and science. The story’s resulting conflict between pure scientific inquiry and philosophical concerns constitutes an early treatise on bioethics, a topic of increasing urgency today.

Frankenstein has also been championed by modern scholars and critics as an early feminist text, but Carlson cautions that this interpretation is dependent upon a consensus definition of “feminism” and is therefore debatable. According to Carlson it may be argued with equal validity that the novel was autobiographically-inspired, an allegorical reaction to Shelley’s own upbringing as, in Carlson’s words, “an experiment of radical parents.” Shelley was doubtless keenly aware of the oppositions mentioned above and incorporated them into her work, but she doesn’t resolve them neatly for the reader; rather than a destination, her interest was in the exploration. The many other possible interpretations of Frankenstein – as cautionary fable, post-revolutionary tract, political allegory, critique of English Romanticism, etc. – are a tribute to the novel’s many facets and confirmation of its status as a vaunting work of imagination.

Watch Frankenstein: Afterlives – Mary Shelley

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Shaping Our Dynamic Microbiomes for Lifelong Health

Our life-spans are ever-increasing, but our health-spans are not, leading to long periods of unpleasant and expensive suffering with chronic conditions. Many of these conditions have recently been linked to the microbiome. We are constantly shaping our microbiomes through the foods we eat, the environments we experience, even the people we live and work with.

Through the American Gut Project, the largest crowdsourced and crowdfunded citizen-science project yet conducted, we now know about the microbiomes of many types of people, from the healthiest to the sickest. Potentially real-time analysis of our microbiomes could guide our daily decisions in a way that optimizes our microbiomes for extending our health-span. Although the potential benefits of such research are clear, what are the risks (e.g., privacy concerns) that need to be identified and addressed?

Rob Knight is Professor of Pediatrics, Bioengineering and Computer Science & Engineering and is Director of the Center for Microbiome Innovation at UC San Diego. He authored “Follow Your Gut: The Enormous Impact of Tiny Microbes” and co-authored “Dirt is Good: The Advantage of Germs for Your Child’s Developing Immune System.” His work combines microbiology, DNA sequencing, ecology and computer science to understand the vast numbers of microbes that inhabit our bodies and our planet. He was recently honored with the 2017 Massry Prize for his microbiome research.

Watch Shaping Our Dynamic Microbiomes For Lifelong Health – Exploring Ethics

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Combatting the Scourge

Malaria has been described as “the perennial scourge of mankind,” with over 200 million cases reported annually resulting in up to 750,000 deaths and incalculable misery. The disease is most common in the tropical and subtropical regions that surround the equator, including Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and Asia, but it may be found in any region where climatic conditions favor the growth and spread of the mosquito-borne parasite.

On-going global eradication efforts employing pesticides have been successful in southern Europe and the southern United States, but less so elsewhere. In recent years genomics has taken center stage in malaria research with the sequencing of both the malarial parasite and the human genome. One experimental application of this research is the production of genetically-modified mosquitoes that do not transmit malaria. Another new and promising technique is the gene drive, which combats malaria by introducing disruptive genes into wild populations of mosquitoes that interfere with the development of females.

The use of such radical measures unavoidably prompts serious bioethical concerns, including the possibilities of unforeseen mutations and broader ecological impacts. Ethicists also question whether we have the right to potentially eliminate a species. In her self-described role as a “moral philosopher” Laurie Zoloth (University of Chicago) has written and lectured extensively about these issues, arguing that:

In the 1960s, the world agreed that smallpox was a species worth eliminating. We should feel the same way about A. gambiae. And isn’t deploying a gene drive that specifically targets the mosquito species that carries malaria far better than using chemical sprays, such as pyrethroids, organochlorines and DDT (still used in some countries) that indiscriminately target any insect?

Though malaria and other insect-borne diseases have historically been associated with Third World poverty, Zoloth notes these maladies are no longer the exclusive province of underdeveloped tropical countries. As climate change results in greater and more widespread extremes of temperature, rainfall, and humidity, the range of mosquitoes is likely to increase, and with them the diseases they transmit including malaria, dengue, yellow fever, and Zika. While acknowledging the dangers of meddling with the genetic status quo, Zoloth maintains that preoccupation with those risks is a luxury afforded only to those who are not at risk of losing a loved one to wrenching fevers and severe dehydration.

Zoloth concludes that in that light, gene drives and other genomic-based eradication methods represent the most moral and ethical choice available to scientists.

Watch May We Make the World?: Religious and Ethical Questions with Dr. Laurie Zoloth – Burke Lectureship

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Your Brain on Advertisements

Advertisers are always looking to better understand consumers’ preferences and decision making. The application of neuroscience knowledge and techniques to answer market and media research questions is not new but in our digital age, the practice raises new questions about privacy, informed consent, and consumer autonomy in decision making. Dr. Carl Marci, Chief Neuroscientist at Nielsen explores the ethical concerns that arise and explains some of the tools used by advertisers in this growing field.

Watch My Brain Made Me Buy It: The Neuroethics of Advertising – Exploring Ethics

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