Tag Archives: ethics

Watching “The Incredible Bionic Man”

Yesterday I watched The Incredible Bionic Man on Netflix. It’s a strange Smithsonian Channel documentary from 2013: a group of scientists gathered state-of-the art bionic parts and assembled them into a “man”. The results aren’t completely successful, but as a mainstream introduction into what’s possible in bionics now and coming in the near future, it’s not bad. Here’s the trailer.

There were a few things I liked. The main doctor in the film — Dr. Bertolt Meyer — has a bionic hand. His reaction when he tries a new prototype is fantastic.  A scientist making bionic ankles reveals that he has two bionic legs and claims he wouldn’t want real ones if a wish could grant them. “Normal bodies are boring.” And, the film does bring in someone to be the voice of ethics, to ask questions about human life extension, whether it’s ok if only the rich can afford bionics, and what we will do when people want to remove undamaged parts to upgrade to bionics. He doesn’t answer them, but at least he raises them.

On the other hand, the show overuses the concept of Frankenstein’s monster.  The central idea of building a man from bionic parts — would it have some sort of life? — is quite silly, though effective for showing just how many parts of the human body can be replaced by machines. The short section where they had the creature talk, probably using text-to-speech, was not as funny as they seemed to think it was.

I love my prosthetic hip joint so much that I’ll confess, I daydream about having all my other problematic parts replaced.  Left elbow, left shoulder, whole right foot, maybe the other hip, and hey, can you do something about the tendon in my right hand that keeps getting tendonitis?  However, my father-in-law had a prosthetic leg and it was terribly awkward, uncomfortable, and often painful. The bleeding edge tech in this documentary is not available to most people, nor will it be soon.

Take a look if you have Netflix or you can see a few more short clips on the Smithsonian Channel page about the show.


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Chappie and the desire for emotional machines

Sony Pictures released a vastly improved trailer for the upcoming movie Chappie. The effects look good and the cast is intriguing: Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver, and both Yolandi and Ninja from Die Antwoord (who seem to be playing versions of themselves).

At one point in the trailer, Dev Patel says, “What interests me is a machine that can think and feel.”  Hmm.

Why is it important to us to create machines that have — or at least, emulate — human emotion?  Is it a God complex or a reproductive urge? Do we think that emotion is a necessary partner to higher-order thinking? Do we fear rationality without emotion? Do we think such machines would be more flexible or simply more relatable? Do we think this is a way to learn more about ourselves? Is there a tipping point past which a sentient and active machine seems like a slave unless it has emotion?

I enjoy the sentient and emotional machine trope as much as anyone, but I wonder about what it says about us that the good guys want emotional robots and the bad ones want rational and obedient machines. Perhaps its merely a cinematic/literary device standing in for the outsider, the person who sees things differently than the “automatons” around him- or herself, the underdog that we want to succeed and be validated. Has there been a (relatively) popular work in which the protagonist advocated on behalf of machines without emotion and the black hats wanted humanistic ones? I’m curious to explore that.

I don’t have a lot of deep thoughts or research summaries to share on this yet, but it has given me something to ponder.

Update: My husband, who has read vastly more science fiction than I have, was able to come up with a tiny solitary example so far. From The Simpsons, of all sources:


Posted by on January 10, 2015 in Our Robot Overlords, Video


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How much does “IRL” information matter in a virtual space?

When you meet someone in a video game or virtual world and start to form a friendship, what level of real world information do you expect? The classic age/sex/location? Career or school level? Photos? Link to a credible online profile? Voice chat? Conversely, what level of real world information do you offer?



How can we possibly enjoy time together if we don’t know every single detail? Quite easily, actually.

I’m deeply curious about our online presentations and performances of identity. As the Internet became mainstream, I was surprised to see that people were far more interested in proof of identity than I was, and that disconnect continues. That isn’t to say I haven’t made friendships and had romantic relationship that bridged from digital to physical. I have. But if there is no expectation to meet offline, what details really matter?

For me, that question is very potent. I can wonder about the story behind an avatar and ponder what her offline life might be. She might be a man. She might be 15 years old or celebrating her 73rd birthday. She might live next door or halfway around the planet. However, it’s quite rare that those things matter to how we interact online. In fact, those details might color my perception unnecessarily, when I could instead just take her at face value as she presents herself. To put it in 2014 cinematic terms, did we care less about the Guardian of the Galaxy who had no tragic back story reveal, or were his actions so compelling that “I am Groot” was enough?

A quote from Lars Gustafsson’s The Death of a Beekeeper has stayed with me for decades. Sometimes I believe it, sometimes I don’t, but I think about it often. “What is the maximum distance from which you can love a human being? Answer: less than a millimeter. And without a name.” We love the images we are presented and the images we create. In a virtual environment, we might convince ourselves that by knowing more details we are getting closer to some truth, but perhaps we’re just focusing the image we’ve made. Sometimes we project our desired image very clearly, so that the person we’re discovering has motivation to tell us what we want to hear. Especially in the early stages of getting to know each other, that image might be very far away from any reality.  This doesn’t just happen in virtual worlds; think of how different a first date impression can be from what you know months later.

Online, this interaction of presentation and image can be a problem if real life veracity is important to us. Nev Schulman, who turned catfish into an Internet term, has a new book out, “In Real Life: Love, Lies & Identity in the Digital Age.” I won’t be reading it because I find him personally abhorrent, but this expansive review on Nerve is quite good. There are so many degrees of and reasons for online deception; the Nerve reviewer begins by talking about how she and her friend used to tease guys online by pretending to be a hot woman, then making silly jokes. Of course, deception can be used for nefarious purposes, but my biased opinion is that there’s rarely evil intent. A desire for attention isn’t evil; it’s human. Some people feel that need more deeply and create personas to get what they need. I think there are ethical ways to do that in anonymous online spaces, but my ethics aren’t universal and they aren’t the ones I’ve always practiced.

At this time, I’m pretty straightforward about who I am in every world. Take me or leave me, this is who I am. That wasn’t always the case. A few years ago I created a very detailed and layered alternate identity in a video game, initially as a way to fit in and keep my virtual life separate from my real life. Privacy and assimilation were my goals, not deception. I created an offline identity for her to satisfy those who demanded more details. That identity took on a life of its own as I formed friendships and got involved in game politics. It spread beyond the game into Teamspeak and Skype and Second Life. Though I did no harm and in fact, I was able to offer support to some because of the access that identity gave me, I did not behave in accordance with my own ethics. I got swept up in it.

While I was using that identity, I was diagnosed with cancer. I found myself in a lousy position: other than my husband, the people that I felt closest to didn’t really know who I was. They wanted to offer their support and I needed it, but deep in my heart I knew that they didn’t care about me, they cared about her. Oh, that hurt, especially because I was achingly aware that it was all my fault. A few weeks after having surgery to remove the cancerous bits and more, I outed myself to the two people I was closest to online. One of them instantly accepted the real me and our relationship transitioned well into the physical world. The other accepted it in theory, but mourned the loss of the person he thought he knew. He never got over it and our friendship died out. That’s when I decided to put that identity away. As far as most people who had known her were aware, she simply stopped playing that game and faded away; it happens all the time.

I don’t judge people who create a different identity for themselves online. I’ve seen it be a productive and therapeutic technique, though the people who use it might not be aware of that until they look back with hindsight. It can be a way to explore gender identity or sexual interests, to escape from pain of many forms, or to try to see through the eyes of another. I feel sympathy for people who feel they were deceived by others who never meant them any harm.

What happens in a virtual space if we don’t demand or offer offline information directly, but simply accept each other as what we seem to be? For some, this is standard operating procedure, but it terrifies others. I’m always surprised when I see verified identities listed as a priority in online development, so I think I must be in the minority. I’ll leave this here as an introspection challenge: the next time you’re about to ask a new acquaintance online an RL question, ask yourself why that fact matters to you. What will it change to know the answer?  Will you treat the person differently if his answer is X, Y, or Z?  I’m not saying that we shouldn’t talk about the offline world — heck, befriend me in SL and ask an RL question, and I’ll answer you without hesitation — but wondering if we can broaden ourselves by being less connected to those details.


Posted by on September 8, 2014 in Culture, Gaming, Gender & Sexuality, Relationships


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Fighting about games: the incredibly nasty last two weeks

If you’re part of — or an observer of — gaming culture, you might be aware of the ugliness lately.  If not, I encourage you to click away and go back to playing happily, because this is a subject that angries up the blood.


Fighting game, not gaming fight

I’ve been watching the recent rounds of discord in the gaming community with dismay and frustration. Anthropologically, it’s a fascinating fight about cultural and sub-cultural standards. It’s hard for me to appreciate since there is no distance between myself and the topic, so this post is an opinion piece. There are some links to articles on the conflict at the end of this post, but here is a summary as I see it:

  • One side in the conflict is pointing out the widespread misogyny in video games and how female gamers are treated, with the most recent battle over the video series here. However, some of the criticisms can seem oversensitive, academic, nitpicky, and suggest that every video game should be politically correct first and entertaining… maybe. The commentary can feel like a Women’s Studies 101 class, which detracts from some of the excellent points about the treatment of women. Also, some of the writers/video makers on this side see every criticism as sexism, making a conversation impossible.
  • The other side comes across as a He-Man Woman Haters Club and the most eloquent statements I’ve seen have not been posts or videos, but comments on articles. Other responses range from whiny and uninformed to vitriolic and threatening to defensive and scared. Some feel that their hobby, their culture, and they themselves are under attack, and I agree with some of their points, too.
  • I don’t want to frame this as a fight between men and women. It isn’t. Some men are just as surprised and offended when they notice game misogyny and some women aren’t as bothered by it as others.
  • There are side arguments around the ethics of gaming journalists and dirty laundry about a female game developer that are adding to the noise.

After a lot of thought, I’d like to offer some morsels for you to to chew on, if you’ve been following this conflict and care about it.

Gaming has never been a male-only activity. I saw one whine that “girls weren’t even interested in games before 2006.”  Really?  I’m guessing that fellow wasn’t born when I was playing arcade games and bugging my parents for a console system in the early 1980s. Even before that, I used to hope to babysit my neighbor because he had an Atari. My roommate and I pooled our resources for a Sega Genesis in 1989. Yes, I was aware that games were marketed to boys and that I was somewhat unusual, but if I was the only living female gamer before 2006, I’d be much more famous. While we may never have been in the majority for some genres of games, female gamers have always been here.  Women are the majority of gamers now and that doesn’t just mean casual games on Facebook.

Game content should not have to get a stamp of approval from the political correctness police. A game is a limited peek into a world and a story line. All sexes, genders, ethnicities, belief systems, ages, sizes, occupations, etc will not be represented. Games are not epic novels and they take narrative shortcuts for emotional impact. If the narrative calls for someone close to the player-character to be injured or killed, it shouldn’t always be a woman or girl, but is it really any better for it to be a man or boy? Either is rather lazy writing. I’m particularly frustrated by the dead prostitute/stripper trope in video games, because it mixes violence with slut-shaming and dehumanization of women who wouldn’t have that work if men didn’t provide the demand. However, this trope can be seen on TV crime shows, in movies, and in countless books. It’s not ok anywhere.

Claims that female nudity, violence against women, and the lack of female protagonists in games represent historic or environmental accuracy are uninformed balderdash. I live between two of the most violent cities in the US, but I have never witnessed the casual abuse of women on main streets that sets the scene in some games. Anyone who claims a strip club is an accurate place for an expository scene, and not just a way to add in some tits and ass, must think his audience has never been to one. It’s hard to have a private conversation over eardrum-shattering Nickelback. As for historical accuracy, one refutation is Cara Ellison’s interesting essay that highlights the differences between a noir film shot in 1947 and the 2011 game L.A. Noire, set in the same year. Her essay was prompted by this piece by Emma Boyes and I don’t agree with all of Ellison’s post, but it is worth noting is that even as a woman and a film noir aficionado, it took the essay by Boyes for her to notice the reduced role of women in the game. As some diversity advocates inflate the historical role of women and minorities, others are stripping them out.

Women are complicit in the objectification of women in gaming. The stereotype of a gamer girl posing topless with game controllers in front of her nipples exists because those girls exist.  Maybe they are seeking attention and approval, maybe it makes them feel sexy, and I’m sure the answer isn’t the same for everyone. Some female gamers give their avatars sexual or flirtatious names and choose revealing clothing even when the gameplay is unrelated. I support the right to safe sexual expression, but we should admit our role in shaping this culture. I was on and off TERA yesterday as the celebrity nudes hack hit the Internet. I watched as a young woman in my guild announced the naked photos of Jennifer Lawrence with apparent delight, then broadcast the news to wider chat groups to make sure everyone was aware of them. Her motivation wasn’t clear and I won’t speculate, but it was a little uncomfortable for me to observe.

Some people, including some men who play games, like looking at naked women. Shocker, right? Representations of naked and half-dressed women predate written language, so it’s not a surprise that these continue into current day media. That doesn’t mean that the men and women who enjoy those images are misogynistic creeps. Later last night, I observed a few young men in my guild talking about the same leaked celebrity photos, clearly unaware that a woman their mothers’ age was in the chatroom. Sure, they had looked at the stolen photos, but they were actually quite sweet and appreciative; more like a surprised boy who caught a glimpse of an adored neighbor through her curtain than a stalker drooling and lurking outside that window. There is nothing shameful in appreciating the aesthetics of the human body (the ethics of these particular images aside).  Sometimes, however, the display is gratuitous sexualization and weakens the game. In TERA, some of the most important NPC military commanders, spies, warriors, and deities are female. As a player-character, you are sometimes required to escort and defend male characters as well as female. The big difference, however, is that all of those female characters have skimpy outfits and swinging breasts  — even while in a leadership role at federation headquarters — while the males are in appropriate occupational clothing. They’re lovely, but it undermines the lack of sexism in the storyline.

Men and women misunderstand each other sometimes. Did I shock you again? Sorry about that. This comes to mind when I see some images and recordings of male gamers hitting on female gamers. Yes, there are creeps but there are also mean girls.  Publicly shaming a socially awkward guy who approaches you is a bitchy thing to do, and repeatedly chatting up a girl who says she’s not interested is a dick move. Sometimes I cringe when I read these accounts because there is clearly a cultural misunderstanding at work. Online games are global but the norms for interaction are not. Also, since there are a lot of young men and women gamers, relationships are not unusual, so yes, my dears, sometimes someone might flirt with you. I had to smile when a young woman in TERA recently admitted that she had been playing another online game with a boy at her school for over a year, and he had finally noticed her and they were going to hang out together. Maybe games are like bars for a different social group; sometimes you get an unwelcome approach, sometimes you meet The One, sometimes you just have fun with friends, sometimes you wake up with a headache and a pledge never to go there again.

Bringing awareness to the issue is not a personal attack on you, gamer guy. I’m wary of some of the game critiques that connect screen misogyny to offline violence against women, correlation vs causation and all that. I believe that people can play the games that are being critiqued and enjoy them while being unaware of the sociopolitical undercurrents that others might quickly perceive. Video game violence seems to desensitize players to some level of brutality, but if we’re looking for the source of continuing misogyny, I think we need to cast a wider net. No one wants to ruin your hobby or put video game companies out of business. Most of us just want the content creators to act like better people. Does the writer of a game where women are casually murdered as a plot device want his daughter to play it? Does he want her to date a boy who is a huge fan of his work?

Doxxing, hit lists of critics, and threats of violence are not part of gamer culture. They’re part of asshole troll culture. If that’s not the group you want to be associated with, don’t behave that way.

Shaming gamers with insults about their sexual experience, hobbies, and employability is not part of feminist culture. It’s part of asshole troll culture. If that’s not the group you want to be associated with, don’t behave that way.


In this debate I’m uncomfortable labeling myself as a “gamer” or “feminist”, but I believe in equal rights for women and I play games. The word “feminist” is associated with political, social, and linguistic movements that I don’t entirely support, so that word has been damaged in my eyes though I fit the actual definition. As for being a gamer, I don’t play a lot of the games that have been criticized for one main reason: I’m lousy at them. I startle too easily to play horror games or first-person shooters and my hand-eye coordination isn’t good enough for driving or twitchy role-playing games. Wish I could, and I’m a fan, but my participation is limited by my nature, much like I love auto racing but had vivid images of certain death on the first loop I took around a track at 160 miles per hour.

Some articles if you need background on the current issues:


Posted by on September 1, 2014 in Gaming, Gender & Sexuality


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Were you an uninformed participant in a Facebook study?

emotionsA study published in the June 17th issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science is raising troubling ethical questions. Researchers manipulated the content of Facebook feeds of unknowing subjects, then tracked whether the subjects’ subsequent posts showed an emotional change. Does that breach the threshold for which informed consent is required? [The full paper is freely available as a pdf: Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks. I don’t want to rehash what others have written so well; take a quick look at one of the following articles from yesterday for more details. I particularly recommend the first one:

The editor of the paper said she had reservations until the authors assured her that their institutional review board had approved the research and “Facebook apparently manipulates people’s News Feeds all the time.” She now says

“It’s ethically okay from the regulations perspective, but ethics are kind of social decisions. There’s not an absolute answer. And so the level of outrage that appears to be happening suggests that maybe it shouldn’t have been done…I’m still thinking about it and I’m a little creeped out, too.”

The Atlantic piece has the best analysis so far of the problems with the research methodology, apart from whether it’s acceptable to specifically eliminate happy or sad posts from someone’s news feed without his knowledge. The way that the content was evaluated fairly calls the results into question, so don’t get too panicked about the alleged “emotional contagion” yet. The most valid conclusion seems to be that people respond more to emotional content than bland posts. Shocking.

As an independent researcher unaffiliated with a university, I am excruciatingly sensitive to issues of informed consent. My methods have extra steps for anonymity and protection of subjects because I don’t have an institutional review board to check my methodology. I have to wonder if the researchers on this project simply asked themselves how they would feel if their own feeds were manipulated in this way, for study purposes or because Facebook wanted to do so. My gut instinct says that intentionally manipulating the overall emotional timbre of a person’s feed is not just creepy and unethical, it borders on evil.

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Posted by on June 29, 2014 in Research


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Robots will (or will not) kill us all

Skimming through articles over the weekend, I came across

Huh. When the Internet can’t agree whether I should be irrationally afraid of some future possibility, what am I supposed to do?

The first two articles are based largely on the paper Autonomous technology and the greater good by Steve Omohundro, published in the Journal of Experimental & Theoretical Artificial Intelligence (link goes to the paper; access is free). To grossly oversimplify, Omohundro points to the coming ubiquitous nature of autonomous devices, their reach, and their coldly rational and self-protective natures. The third article, from io9, suggests that the lack of human bias errors and emotion would prevent a digital super-intelligence from being actively evil.

Predictive algorithms can have unintended effects, and since we have a tendency to anthropomorphize actions that seem to be conscious decisions, we might be inclined to see them as good or evil. They’re not.  One example: during some bone-chilling days near the end of our exhausting winter this year, I treated myself to a couple extra degrees of warmth in my home: 68F instead of 66 on the floor where I was working. I was surprised to feel the furnace running in the following week when there was a break in the cold. I pulled out my smartphone and checked the setting on the Nest programmable thermostat.  Nest had decided that since I tweaked the temperature above the set schedule, I must want it warmer every day. It was neither concerned about my cold nose nor trying to boost my energy bill: it had simply extrapolated a pattern from a repeated aberrant behavior.

Anyone who has taken a basic philosophy survey course knows that passionate arguments can be made for and against pure utilitarianism. Consider Phillipa Foot’s Trolley Problem. In a class a couple years ago, after the usual kvetching about the scenario being implausible, there was universal agreement about what to do in part one of the problem:

Sorry guy, but when it was a matter of flipping a switch to choose between the accidental death of four people or the accidental death of one, everyone eventually agreed to flip the switch.  However, the second part of the problem produced mixed results.

Though I argued that flipping the switch in part one was actively killing the isolated guy as much as pushing him off the bridge, the other people in the room were far queasier about pushing a man instead of a switch.  That made them feel like killers, rather than the first scenario, where passivity would be complicit in the deaths of three additional people.  What would a robot do?  If it’s simply a question of one versus four, the level of active participation in the death of the one shouldn’t matter. That’s what sends science fiction writers (and drone-controlling military strategists) into the dark zone of assassinations to prevent possible future crimes, using a utilitarian calculation that one death now will prevent many later.  Maybe. Oh, and don’t think that we’ll be saved by Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, specifically a version that prevents harming humans. We won’t.

Anthropologically, I think that human beings, cultures, and societies are complex organizations that thrive because of our illogical choices as much as our rational ones. We are not at peak efficiency or justice, but the continual balancing of logic, passion, empathy, innate drives, etc is what makes us who we are. So for me, the threat of widespread AI is not really a question of life and death of our species, but of our selves. As much as I adore robotics, we need to be careful that we do not cede our humanity to them.  For now, we’re lucky that there’s a sure-fire way to recognize an evil robot: look for the goatee.


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Posted by on April 21, 2014 in Our Robot Overlords


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