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Tech’s Ethics: Hardware

Published 09/12/2019

There are myriad ethical issues surrounding hardware and the exponentially increasing pace of physical technological change. Humans are tool-using creatures – many evolutionary scientists claim it is the most prominent feature that led to our domination of the planet. But what happens when our tools outpace our morals? What happens when the tools present imminent threats to humans themselves? What happens when we use our tools on our own planet, for good or for ill?

To ensure that our technology is serving us instead of the other way around, we need to ask these and other important questions.

3D-Printed Guns

3D printing is an incredible technology. It’s certainly not at scale yet, but one can imagine a future wherein goods are printed at home rather than being bought online or from a store (if one can even imagine stores existing at that point). No more need for massive shipping expenses moving products around the world. No more need for time spent placing orders or making trips. Just load the recipe for a screwdriver, hit “start”, and watch your new screwdriver magically materialize right there in your printer.

That’s the good part.

The bad part revolves around items that are restricted and that we as a society don’t want to allow to be printed on demand. Foremost among those items are guns, which is seemingly permanent hot button issue in the United States with a deep divide between those who want to severely restrict them (or ban them outright) and those who see the weapons themselves as emblematic of an ever-present risk of curtailment of freedom by the government.

And that is the same debate being had about 3D-printed guns: what right do people have to make their own weapons?

(We’ll focus here on the United States because the rest of the world has vastly different gun laws.)

The first thing that needs to be pointed out is that it is currently legal to craft your own gun. You can metalwork out the necessary parts and put them together, no problem. But the amount of time and effort and precision required to craft your own gun is incredible. It takes an amazing amount of skill and expertise, not to mention the equipment and materials you would need to do it.

3D printing a gun could theoretically be as easy as clicking a button.

(Right now you still need to buy a component called a lower third, but down the line that might not even be a requirement.)

So what can be done? On the one hand, we could allow anyone to 3D print a gun in obeisance to the 2nd amendment. But that becomes a debate around the intent of that amendment itself, which is the crux of all of the political fights that occur today. And seeing how unresolvable those fights seem to be, that doesn’t seem like a viable option.

So perhaps we need to rethink the punitive side of things. We could introduce much harsher penalties for any crimes committed with a firearm. (Of course, harsher penalties don’t actually seem to be the absolute deterrent we wish they were.) We could introduce extremely harsh penalties for anyone found with an unregistered firearm. (This, again, touches on the freedom issues surrounding gun ownership, so they’re probably a non-starter.)

In the same vein, we could start requiring more extensive gun licenses, but this is also probably a non-starter. There seems to be a vocal side of the debate that believes that gun ownership protects the citizenry from tyranny, as absurd as that is. What chance do you think a well-armed militia with 3D-printed guns would stand against the government?

Technological solutions? You could introduce software solutions to recognize gun recipes and not allow a printer to craft the components. But even with that, printers could be jailbroken to allow for such printing. Or the components could be masked in some way to make it look like they’re not for a 3D-printed gun, when, in fact, they are.

So no good solutions to a potentially dire problem. That’s why we need to be having these discussions to ensure that our technology doesn’t eclipse the will of the people.

3D-Printed Suicide Machines

Stick with 3D printing for the moment, what about suicide machines? These are devices whose components can be generated by a 3D printer that allow its user to painlessly kill themselves. (The actual method involves the delivery of carbon monoxide into an enclosed chamber.)

Again, this is a political debate where hardware solutions make the debate more urgent. Suicide is illegal in the United States, but there is a prevalent debate about why that is. Surely a large part of that is due to this country’s Christian heritage and the sanctimony of life. But there is a very real public health side, as well.

The more acceptable suicide is, the more people kill themselves. That’s why journalists are encouraged (or, at least, they used to be encouraged) not to provide too much coverage to suicides because the suicide rates increase following such coverage.

Suicide machines would certainly make the act of suicide more socially acceptable and we simply don’t know what effect that would have on suicidal individuals. It might be the case that easy suicides would vastly increase suicide rates. One of the primary deterrents today is the simple fact that people don’t want to cause unnecessary suffering on their loved ones. But if suicide became easy, that deterrent might disappear.

Again, no good solutions beyond outright banning, and even that wouldn’t work. So all we can do is make sure that people are talking about it and understanding the societal impacts of new pieces of hardware.

Artificial Womb

Certainly one of the most controversial pieces of hardware being actively developed is the artificial womb.

Now, before we get into the debate surrounding its implications, there are very real, unquestionably positive impacts that an artificial womb would have. Most importantly, it would completely change the treatment of premature babies. There’s a very real possibility that any premature baby would be able to survive in an artificial womb instead of the rates we see today where most premature babies die if born before the 25th week.

But what about the elephant in the room? Namely, abortion.

If a fetus is viable from the moment of conception in an artificial womb, then the abortion debates changes immediately because so much of the judicial decisions revolve around the viability of the fetus. Abortion would therefore actually become murder. And those advocating for abortion on the grounds of privacy would have no legs to stand on because certainly privacy could never trump murder.

So then what are we left with? One could argue genetic control, whereby someone wouldn’t want their DNA propagated in the child. Of course then the decision can’t be one-sided and the father would have to be involved as he provided half the DNA.

One could argue that abortions should be legal for population control – “the world doesn’t need any more unwanted children” – but that seems like a dark argument to make. And the world doesn’t have a good record of killing people to control population. That experiment has never ended well.

China (ironically enough with the history of its one child policy) is at the forefront of artificial womb research. The science will be there soon enough. But what will we do with that technology once it’s readily available? How will the debates change? Only time will tell.

Artificial Organs

It’s not just the womb that is becoming artificial, either. There have been incredible advancements with artificial internal organs as well. At some point in the near future, we’ll be able to grow organs in animals and transplant them into needing recipients. But ethical conundrums surround them as well.

On the science fiction side, there is the very real possibility that we won’t know the effects that animal-grown organs have on the human body until they happen. We’re talking about comic book stuff here where the human receives some of the properties of the animal donor. Or it could be that the animal receives properties from its host and we end up with strange animal-human hybrids.

But outside of the horror movie side of the debate, what about the rights of animal themselves as bearers of our artificial organs? What kind of suffering will we be causing on these creatures and is that okay given that their suffering will save human lives?

And what about if we move beyond simple replacement organs and start looking at human enhancements. What about super-strong bones? What about super-powered muscles? What about artificial eyes with the vision of birds of prey? As we experiment with extreme human modifications, don’t we have to wonder what actually makes us human?

Controlling the Weather

And it’s not just humanity that we’re changing. We’re actively trying to change our world as well.

Humans have been controlling their environment since time immemorial. (And we’ve often completely screwed up, turning oases into deserts.) But as our technology gets stronger, our potential impacts on our planet become even greater.

China, for example, has experimented widely with cloud seeing in order to prevent rain (and thereby provoke it elsewhere). Before the opening ceremony of the Olympics, for example, they pumped tons of silver nitrate into clouds to avoid any sort of rain ruining the ceremony.

But what effect does that have on us? What happens when that rain eventually falls? What negative impacts does that have on human and environmental health? These aren’t questions being readily asked. But the planet is a fragile ecosystem as we’re consistently seeing, and whether we want to have an even greater impact on it is a very real debate we need to be having.

Artificial Diamonds

But it’s not all bad. Special mention needs to be made about artificial diamonds, for example. These are diamonds that are produced and are indistinguishable from real, mined diamonds. And with the dangers of diamond mining, the horrible treatment and conditions of workers, and the empowerment of nefarious mining operators and corrupt governments, we should all be thrilled with the potential for the elimination of diamond mining entirely.

Conclusion

Hardware is an incredibly difficult topic to discuss. The advents of the past several and the potential for future world-changing innovations brings into question many of our long-held morals and ethical beliefs. Political discussions will have to completely change to deal with the real-world impacts of hardware implementations like 3D printing and artificial body parts, whether internal or external. And these discussions need to happen before the technology races too far along.

As with so much of technology today, the less we talk about it, the more it will increasingly control our lives. We can’t let hardware innovation run away unfettered or we risk creating a world that we didn’t ask for and that we don’t want.