This article is the first post in a four-part series looking at robots being developed for aging care, as well as their ethical implications. In this first article, we explore the rise of emotional companion robots such as the now-famous Paro, which are designed to soothe and comfort.
What are Emotional Companion Robots?
Emotional companion robots deliver on a very basic definition of the term “companionship:” they provide emotional soothing and a constant presence for users. Many emotional companion robots are modeled after animal-assisted therapy (AAT) pets, which are trained to calm and support individuals with Alzheimer’s, dementia, and cognitive impairments.
AAT in elder care can be challenging; animals risk injury to patients, trigger allergies, and require regular exercise (and bathroom breaks). Animals may also refuse to cooperate, which can further agitate patients. Emotional companion robots have similar demonstrated outcomes to AAT—reducing stress, improving mood, and stimulating conversation—without the logistical hang-ups of animal care. Read More
Lawyers calling themselves the “Opioid Justice Team” are pushing forward in their mission to certify babies exposed to opioids in utero, as well as “all women in the United States capable of becoming pregnant,” as distinct classes in the multi-district opioid litigation now unfolding in federal court in Ohio. Last week, lawyers filed an amended complaint on behalf of the legal guardians of individuals diagnosed with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), and a list of “experts” with the court. Their claims misrepresent the science regarding fetal exposure to opioids and position fetal rights in opposition to those of pregnant people. National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) has issued a statement and fact sheet denouncing the claims.
In a series of court filings, sweeping claims about the impact of prescription opioid exposure on fetuses are being made. The lawyers falsely claim “[a]nything a pregnant woman ingests or breathes is transmitted to her baby by the placenta” and that “[i]n-utero opioid exposure leaves most children with physical, social, educational disabilities that require constant and regular interventions. Most of these disabilities are considered permanent.” In actuality, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists states that the available data show “no significant differences” in long-term outcomes for individuals exposed to opioids in utero versus those who are not. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) finds there may be early childhood impacts on cognitive or developmental abilities from prenatal opioid exposure. However, available studies struggle to separate the physical effects from environmental and social variables. There is not enough data to conclude whether any long-term consequences of fetal opioid exposure exist, the CDC finds.
Last summer, a group of cancer survivors and others struggling to have children held a memorial service for their “hopes and dreams lost.” That’s the message they had engraved on a bench in the Ohio cemetery where these would-be-parents-who-won’t mourned.
Some of those affected had made appointments to try to initiate pregnancies the very next week. All had undergone painful procedures and paid, in some cases, thousands of dollars to keep their materials suspended in liquid nitrogen at a constant −196°C. But that weekend in March, tank temperatures began rising, and by the time the Ohio lab technicians returned for their next shift, everything inside had thawed beyond rescue or repair. It’s not clear why remote alarms were turned off; investigations are ongoing. So far, only coordinated cyberattacks have been ruled out. Read More
Last week Alabama passed the most restrictive abortion law in the country, criminalizing abortion of “any woman known to be pregnant,” with very limited exceptions that do not include rape or incest. But a recent case in Alabama presents an even more threatening challenge to reproductive rights.
In a new paper published in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, authors Dov Fox, Eli Y. Adashi, and I. Glenn Cohen, discuss a recent Alabama state court case involving a man suing an abortion clinic and the manufacturer of a pill that enabled his then-girlfriend to terminate her pregnancy at 6 weeks.
In a troubling decision, the court permitted the fetus be a co-plaintiff alongside the man in a “wrongful death” lawsuit. Read More
The meaning of elder abuse remains misunderstood, even by professionals.
I know—from hard-learned experience—when I, and many others, worked to save my grandmother from abuse by my father.
In a December 2006 court decision, my grandmother’s guardianship judge authorized reimbursement of my legal fees for bringing a guardianship petition for my grandmother, stating, “Although this matter voluntarily settled before the hearing, I find the petitioner Philip Marshall was the prevailing party…”
But the judge also decided to award my father a portion of his legal fees, writing, “I make this ruling based on the conclusion of the court evaluator that the allegations in the petition regarding Mrs. Astor’s medical and dental care, and the other allegations of intentional elder abuse by the Marshalls, were not substantiated.” [italics added]
Decision—In the Matter of the Application of Philip Marshall for the appointment of a Guardian for the Person and Property for Brooke Astor, an Alleged Incapacitated Person. Judge John A. Stackhouse, Supreme Court of the State of New York. December 4, 2006 Read More
Roe v. Wade made it clear that an embryo or fetus is not a person under the protections of constitutional and federal law. Since then, no [Supreme Court] ju[stices] have suggested otherwise, Dov Fox, a law professor at the University of San Diego, told The Daily Beast. That doesn’t mean that wrongful death claims cannot be filed on behalf of a fetus [or that] the fetus has legal standing as a person overall, but wrongful death can be brought on its behalf—”for lack of a better legal fiction,” Fox said.
Fox added that in similar cases dealing with the loss of embryos due to hospital or clinic in the past, the courts decide that an embryo is not a person for the purposes of wrongful death cases. He pointed to two cases where embryos were damaged—one in Arizona in 2005, and one in Illinois in 2008. Both held that the wrongful death statutes do not apply to the loss of an embryo that hasn’t yet been implanted in a womb. Therefore, it would be surprising if the Ohio court ruled differently. “It would fly in the face of all existing legal precedent,” Fox said.Read More
There is a lot of fascinating research about the brain coming out of Stanford University, with some exciting, cutting-edge work being done there. Early last month I reported on the findings made by neuroscientists at Stanford in understanding how mental rehearsal prepares our minds for real-world action. Today, I’ll outline the recent advances made by a team led by Sergiu Pasca, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, and discuss some of the ethical implications of this research.
Pasca’s method enables him to culture cells in order to form brain organoids with robust structures that are not compromised by cells from other parts of the body, thereby allowing him to more accurately replicate distinct brain regions. Doing so provides greater structural organization and also allows him and his team of researchers to better study and understand pathological mechanisms and perhaps one day to examine the molecular, cellular, and circuit levels of a person’s neurons. This is a promising method and a big step toward greater understanding of psychiatric and neurological disease, leading Pasca to declare, “This is our doorway into personalized psychiatry.” At the same time—although these “brain balls” are not brains, nor do they receive sensory inputs from the outside world—it is clear that as scientists progress in both the techniques and complexity of replication, major ethical questions and dilemmas will arise.
Chief among these will undoubtedly be the perennial ethical debate about the ontology of a human being. Is it only physical, material, social—in which case we might think of ourselves as technicians—or is it spiritual, religious, metaphysical—in which case we would more likely consider ourselves custodians? When we speak about attributing rights to animals or consciousness to AI, it is because at bottom we hold some fundamental belief: about dignity, a soul, being, or about what life might mean in a relational or social and emotional sense. This is no different with Pasca’s brain balls; in fact, it is an even more pressing quandary. As Bruce Goldman notes in his article, “One of the most amazing things about their brain balls was that, with not much chemical guidance, they tended to take on a default structure that’s a facsimile of the most evolutionarily advanced part of the brain: the human cerebral cortex, with all six layers you find in a living human brain.” The ethics of growing human organs are one thing, but the ethics of growing brain balls, which might eventually lead to more and more complex synaptic connections followed by even more elaborate renditions of an actual brain, will become especially contentious given the meaning and significance that we associate with the brain—both biologically and existentially.
With few exceptions, most cultures put homo sapiens at the center or the apex of creation. Humans, it is generally believed, are distinguished from other animals by our self-awareness and our ability to use tools, to think, reason, and construct meaning and representations about life. The Abrahamic religious traditions are most notable in their anthropocentric vision of human purpose in creation; and although the metaphysics and teleology are sometimes challenged by advances in science and technology, the fact remains that human beings remain the paradigmatic case against which other animals or even artificial intelligence is measured. As a Muslim and a theist, I avow my belief in the unique status of humans; however, as someone who also believes in science and is keenly attuned to the environment, I have a great love for nature and the animal world, and a great desire to protect them.
It is with this, then, that I want to propose to put ethics before metaphysics in considering the moral status of what legal scholars and ethicists call “non-human persons.” In particular, I want to look at cetacean intelligence of orcas, dolphins, and whales to understand the way in which we might classify them as non-human persons which would be given certain rights and protections. Doing so, I argue, would enable us to collapse the bifurcations that influences much of Western thought thereby ushering in a more holistic, ecological and relational approach to ethics and being.
To begin with, I would like to make a distinction clear: I am not claiming that orcas, for example, are morally equivalent to humans, but I am suggesting that we ought to be more cautious with regard to understanding our place in the animal world as a whole, particularly as it relates to the precariousness of life itself. My argument below follows philosophical and ethical reasoning, though this might also be understood in the context of religious texts. The story of Yunus (aka Jonah) and the whale is found in both the Bible and the Qur’an. In short, Yunus felt discouraged that the people of Nineveh did not heed his call to worship God, and so he left in anger. Being cast into the sea, followed by being swallowed by the whale, was ostensibly punishment for his loss of hope and leaving the city without God’s permission; though on another level the exegetical scholars point to the fact of his supplication “O Lord! There is no god but you: Glory to you: I was indeed wrong” (Qur’an 21:87) as instructive of submitting to God’s will and the significance of humility. Indeed, the Qur’an goes on to say elsewhere: “Had he not been of those who exalt God, he would certainly have remained inside the whale until the Day of Resurrection.” (Qur’an 37:143-144). The whale, on this reading, is integral to the Abrahamic worldview insofar as it is the manifestation of God’s power and dominion over creation, as well as his lesson to human beings to remain humble. Read More
Medicine is meant to heal our ailments and treat our illnesses. Our deep knowledge of the body and the numerous mechanisms that contribute or correlate to good health is considered a triumph of the medical sciences. We can now perform transplants with relative ease, offer prosthetics to those who require them, and even cure some forms of blindness. But so much of modern medicine today is built around quantitative data—family histories, success and morbidity rates, pathologization, statistical analyses—without much conscious consideration of how one understands, copes, or derives meaning from their experience. True, such data is gathered for the purposes of more accurate diagnoses and as the first defense against an illness or medical condition; but physicians are taught to concentrate on the cure, and while few would dispute that that is certainly a good thing, we also ought to keep in mind that excessive focus on a default measure of “normal” does not necessarily allow us to express the diverse ways of being in the world nor adequately account for the ways in which people embrace their conditions.
Some autistic individuals, for example, believe that autism should be accepted as a difference and not as a disorder. That the autism spectrum is precisely that—a spectrum—is important: on the one hand, statistical analysis may reveal that these individuals are in the minority versus the average population, only 1%; but on the other hand, to take a different perspective, it means merely that the characteristics of these individuals manifest in a way that is atypical with how the institution and culture of medicine classifies them. Lest we forget, medicine is part of the dynamic structure of society and social norms—in the background and the foreground—of knowledge-making, and it is imbedded in place and society, as part of the structures existing in institutions. It is not possible to consider theoretical or epistemological claims apart from practical knowledge and applied sciences. Read More