Oklahoma Acts To Innovate – In Executions

On Friday the Governor of Oklahoma signed into law a bill that would establish nitrogen-induced hypoxia as a means of executing prisoners, should circumstances prevent lethal injection from being used. The bill does not get into specifics, it simply modifies the existing law on the order of preference for methods of execution (Oklahoma now has four).  The law would take effect November 1, 2015.  Oklahoma does not currently have any executions scheduled, and the executions of three men are currently stayed pending a Supreme Court case.

While gas chambers have been used for executions in the United States (inmates in three states still have the option of death by gas), the active gas used to suffocate the condemned was never nitrogen.  The general principle is the same, a gas is pumped into a sealed chamber, and the condemned dies after breathing it.  Hydrogen cyanide was the most common gas used in the United States for executions, and it is considered a chemical warfare agent.  Using nitrogen for execution could be very different as it is not toxic, and could cause much less pain and suffering for the condemned.  It would likely be easier to use than hydrogen cyanide.

But it is an untested method.  Oklahoma has no experience with a gas chamber, and with its challenges in administering lethal injections, I can understand why some would doubt the state’s ability to effectively innovate in executions.  However, should the Supreme Court rule against the state’s lethal injection protocols later this year, Oklahoma may well set an example for other states seeking ways around the roadblocks to lethal injection.

Sidebar – While the Supreme Court case on Oklahoma’s methods may make this moot, the federal death penalty may force a more definitive legal stance on lethal injection.  The federal government’s preferred method of execution defers to the state in which the crime took place.  Should there be no death penalty in that state, the judge must choose a state with a death penalty to carry out the execution.  While this typically means lethal injection, it is plausible that the recent turmoil in the states may affect how the federal government conducts its executions.  However, no federal execution has been carried out since 2003, and none are scheduled at the time of this writing.

So It’s Now A National Maker Faire

I missed the buried lede in last week’s announcement by the White House of the “Week of Making.”  I assumed there was going to be a second White House Maker Faire during that week, when it states there will be a *National* Maker Faire.  At the moment the Faire’s most active web presence is on social media.  Its website currently is just an information subscription request.

The Faire will be held at the University of the District of Columbia.  The University is partnering with the District Government, the organizers of the DC Mini Maker Faire and Maker Media to put on the event.  Several government agencies are committed to attend the Faire, which will take place June 12-13 (the beginning of the Week of Making).

More information is forthcoming.  But with the Week of Making less than 2 months away, I wish the information would come sooner.

The White House Is Doing The Maker Faire Again

This year I missed any early announcement about this year’s White House Maker Faire.  The 2015 White House Maker Faire will take place during the week of June 12-18, what the White House is calling a ‘Week of Making.‘  The announcement talks much more about last year’s Faire than this year’s week.

Perhaps that’s because the White House is looking for people and organizations to step up.  In line with last year’s call, the White House is looking for commitments to supporting Makers in a number of ways, including:

  • Creating hands-on learning opportunities for students to engage in STEM arts and design through making in and outside the classroom
  • Broadening participation in making for girls, young women and underrepresented minorities
  • Supporting the development of low-cost tools for prototyping
  • Developing capabilities that enable maker entrepreneurs to produce their products domestically and scale volume
  • Engaging makers in developing solutions to pressing local and global challenges

In order to be ready to announce new commitments during the June ‘Week of Making,’ The White House wants submissions by May 15.  If interested, please fill out the form at this webpage.

Gray Matters Volume 2 Seeks To Counter Hype With Discussion

Today the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues released the second volume of its Gray Matters report, the ninth report by this commission.  The report was requested by the President following the announcement of the BRAIN Initiative.  He requested that the Commission identify a set of core ethical standards to influence neuroscience research and to address some of the debates emerging from applications of that research.

Volume One, released in May 2014, focused on how to fully integrate ethics into neuroscience research throughout the research cycle.  Volume Two concerns ethics in applications of neuroscience research, with an emphasis on three topics that have attracted some level of debate: cognitive enhancement, the capacity of a being to consent (to research conducted on them), and neuroscience in the law.  Through these cases the Commission wanted to tease out relevant ethical considerations and related tensions brought out by the potential impacts of these technologies.

There are fourteen main recommendations in the report:

Prioritize Existing Strategies to Maintain and Improve Neural Health

Continue to examine and develop existing tools and techniques for brain health

Prioritize Treatment of Neurological Disorders
As with the previous recommendation, it would be valuable to focus on existing means of addressing neurological disorders and working to improve them.

Study Novel Neural Modifiers to Augment or Enhance Neural Function
Existing research in this area is limited and inconclusive.
Ensure Equitable Access to Novel Neural Modifiers to Augment or Enhance Neural Function

Access to cognitive enhancements will need to be handled carefully to avoid exacerbating societal inequities (think the stratified societies of the film Elysium or the Star Trek episode “The Cloud Minders“).

Create Guidance About the Use of Neural Modifiers
Professional societies and expert groups need to develop guidance for health care providers that receive requests for prescriptions for cognitive enhancements (something like an off-label use of attention deficit drugs, beta blockers or other medicines to boost cognition rather than address perceived deficits).
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Agency Scientists Still Have Challenges Communicating Freely

Recently the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) issued a new edition of its report Grading Government Transparency (H/T Nextgov).  The first edition came out in 2013, and it expands on a previous report, Freedom to Speak?, from 2008, that focused on agency media policies (15 agencies and 2 federal departments).  Grading Government Transparency includes social media policies along with traditional media policies.

The scorecards from the 2013 and 2015 reports suggest slight improvement in policies, or at least maintaining the status quo.  Agencies in the report that didn’t have social media policies in 2013 have them now, so the progress is forward.

The report recommendations in 2015 aren’t that different from 2013.  The UCS still encourages agency media policies to place free and open communication ahead of political principles.  As the organization strongly advocates for a fundamental right to scientific free speech, this is not a surprise.

For agencies where there was improvement in agency policies, the UCS noted several key changes in many cases: the existence of a social media policy, whistleblower protections, a personal-views exception (provisions that allow for government scientists to state personal opinions if they are clearly noted as their personal opinion and do not use unreasonable amounts of government time or resources), and a dispute resolution process.

What is still lacking in many cases, according to UCS, are a right of last review (of written product going under their name or relying on their research) and a right to access drafts and revisions of written materials using contributions from the scientists’ research.

The agencies and departments covered in the report are only part of the government, and do not cover all scientists and engineers employed by the government.  And I don’t think the UCS finds every agency’s grades in the reports satisfactory.  So there remains work to be done.  Media and social media policies for scientists and engineers need to be in more agencies, and need to be strengthened in those where they already exist.

 

Do You Want To See Some Robots?

The DARPA Robotics Challenge will hold its 2015 finals June 5-6 in Pomona, California.  DARPA is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a part of the Defense Department focused on leading edge research in a number of fields.  Over 10 years ago started conducting competitions in driverless automobiles through competitions, and the Robotics Challenge is an offshoot of that effort.  Like the 2012 Challenge, this year the focus is on automated robots that can perform critical tasks in situations where communications from humans may be compromised.

As you might guess, those interested in competing are already well engaged in the process.  But high school students interested in this work have an opportunity to see it up close and personal (H/T White House).  DARPA is looking for 2-3 minute videos from students in grades 9-12 (in schools in the U.S. and its territories) that describe the kind of robot-assisted society that the entrants want to see.  Entries will be judged on clarity of ideas, creativity of presentation and quality of the video.  You have until April 1 to submit your entry.

Good luck!

#SciFiSciPol – Automata Implies The Singularity Can’t Be Programmed Away

As this film has been out for several months, though not in wide release, I’m inclined to say that a spoiler alert is not necessary.  I will speak about the use of robots in the film, which

Last weekend I watched Automata, a 2014 film set in a dystopian future where robots have been built to help society rebuild.  The robots have two rules – 1. A robot cannot harm a human, and 2. A robot cannot repair or upgrade itself.  The plot is put into action when a robot is discovered that was allegedly repairing itself.

From a #SciFiSciPol perspective, there were two items that attracted my attention.  The first was the intention behind the second rule.  If robots were forbidden from repairing or upgrading themselves, they shouldn’t be able to surpass the capabilities of humans.  Put another way, the robots won’t achieve the Singularity described by Ray Kurzweil.  It is an effort to enforce a technical restriction on the ability of a system to improve itself beyond the ability of its masters to control it.  Unfortunately, the film is vague about how the robots were able to work around their programming.  It is quite different about what the robots want to do with their newfound freedom.

The other aspect of the film worth exploring from a policy perspective is how the robots are managed.  Yes, a major corporation is involved, but the control mechanism is through repair and insurance.  Not only are the robots forbidden to repair themselves, so is anyone not affiliated with the company that builds the robots and insures them.  It doesn’t stop unauthorized modifications, but it drives them underground.  This is a different kind of control device, and like the second rule, it is not 100 percent successful in managing the robots.

While the film doesn’t dwell on this lesson, it certainly takes the point of view that simple technological fixes are not going to constrain complex technical systems.  And yes, I consider insurance a technological fix.

As Automata is no longer in theaters, my recommendation to wait for a rental is moot.  It traffics in interesting ideas, but stumbles in execution.  It’s still worth having a look.