View from the AAAS Conference in Chicago

A couple of weeks ago I attended the American Association for the Advancement of Science Conference in Chicago. It was my first conference of that size, and the first time I have gone as a journalist, and not a participant.

It is cold in Chicago in February, the lake was frozen for as far as you could see, with sheets that had broken off at some point rising out of the flat desert landscape on the water. It looked a bit like there had been a landslide or earthquake, with the plates sliding above each other.

It has been a harsh winter in general here, and Chicago had experienced some of the coldest temperatures in decades, I found this photo below on the Huffington Post site.

 

Chicago Frozen

Chicago Frozen by Scott Olson/Getty Images

In the background we see the Chicago skyline, and the conference was held in one of the giant hotels that looks out over the lake. There are many hotels on the shorefront, and one thing that surprised me is that they are all linked together by a series of underground tunnels.

Tunnels is a bit of a misrepresentation really, they are underground streets, with shops and bars and sign posts, so that on a cold winter’s day guests do not have to step outside. The conference made use of several different hotels and restaurants, and some people told me that although attending different venues they had not in fact been outside, and had not put on a jacket since their arrival.

The system is known as the pedway, see an explanation here, it covers 40 square blocks. The photo below gives an idea of what parts of it look like. Apparently they are not uncommon in North American cities, in Montreal it is known as the underground city.

An Underground World

An Underground World

As I said above the conference was a giant affair as the program demonstrates. I wanted to see a session on responsible innovation and to take part in the launch of the Journal for Responsible Innovation (I am on the Editorial Board and the Bassetti Foundation sponsored the event) but at any one moment there were dozens of panels in session and associated events.

The journal launch clashed with a talk given by Alan Alda the American actor (most famous for his part in MASH). Alda now runs The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science where he addresses issues and trains people in the art of science communication.

Alan Alda in Mash

Alan Alda in Mash

As I said I couldn’t attend but many of my colleagues told me that his talk was great.

I attended a session called Responsible Innovation in a Global Context early on Saturday morning. It was a great session and I learned a lot. Did you know for example that all research that is conducted involving water has to use an internationally accredited water? Yes it is purified water that then has certain amounts of certain minerals added. This means that scientists doing research in Brazil are using identical water to those conducting research in Italy, or Australia or anywhere else for that matter.

Great we might think, but using this type of water also makes some of the research useless. If bacteria lives in a river it interacts with its own type of water, plants life etc and reacts in particular ways. In the official water these reactions are not seen, so the research does not replicate a real life situation, so the results are different to the real experience.

But in order to get funding and to have their research accredited only one type of water is allowed. So money is spent on research that does not represent reality because “that is what the funding bodies want”. A ridiculous situation it would seem.

The influence of politics in research was also addressed from a Brazilian perspective, but one that can be applied throughout the world. When research and innovation is so tied to politics and touted as the saviour of the economic decline or development of a country it sometimes takes on a nationalist hue. This leads to questions about by whom, for whom and with which goals, that involves ethics and responsibility.

One of the most interesting developments though involves collaborations between the hard and social sciences. In several areas social scientists have been placed within science labs to act as a forum that allows scientists to talk about and understand the ethical dilemmas that they face while carrying out their work.

Much of the stuff I write about is related to the problem of scientific development and dual uses, unforeseen effects and changes they bring about in society, and having a social scientist, philosopher or ethicist in the lab seems to open up debate and even effect scientific outcomes. It might even seem to improve productivity is some ways!

As an aside I should add that attending a conference as a journalist has many advantages. As a participant you want people to listen to you, you have to pay to attend and publicize your event. But as a journalist everyone wants to talk to you so that you will write about them.

At every chance organizations try to engage you. There are free cooked breakfasts offered by national research councils, aperitifs form journals and unions, awards, free books and cd’s more alcohol, cakes and coffee, nights out with transport laid on, more food and more alcohol. Many of my colleagues were jealous, they had to pay for everything.

Thousands of people attended the conference and a lot of networking took place. I get the impression that this is really what these large conferences are all about. I am pleased to report that science bloggers (such as myself) are taken seriously and accepted as serious journalists, and there were many of us sitting alongside Reuters and the New York Times. All Kudos to the AAAS for that.

I stayed at the Palmer house hotel in Chicago, a splendid structure and once the largest hotel in the world. Worth a stay or even just a look if you are passing through. Other famous guests include Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Charles dickens and the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz, so I won’t be asking for a plaque to be erected about my visit.

Sequencing Baby DNA, a Project in Boston

Last week the Science in Mind blog on my local Boston.com website ran an interesting story that is definitely worthy of reflection. It involves 2 local hospitals that are carrying out a project funded by the National Institute of Health (USA). The projects involve sequencing the DNA of newly born babies over the next 5 years. Read all about it here.

Babies to have their DNA sequenced

Babies to have their DNA sequenced

Now sequencing the DNA of babies carries with it several risks and ethical concerns, as well as well argued benefits. If we take the benefits first, doctors may gain information about a baby, such as high risk for a certain disease, genetic mutations that may require changes of lifestyle etc. They might also find explanations for problems that might otherwise go undetected.

There are though as I say risks and concerns. How will parents react if they discover that their baby has a high risk of an incurable disease? How will the knowledge gained through the test effect the way the parents view and behave towards their children? Are we giving families information that will change their understanding of parenting to such a degree that it might destroy the very fabric of their social relationships?

This is not to mention the social implications of giving out such information regarding extended family. If for example I am told that my baby has a genetic mutation carried by the parents that might have a serious effect on its life, should I tell my brothers and cousins so that they can screen their prospective wives, make decisions about having children or even worse a pregnancy already in course? And not to mention the obvious problem of discovering that the father is not the man stood in the room with the mother.

These problems are in fact the issues that the researchers running the project are hoping to look into. The question is if the clinical benefits outweigh the risks of such an approach.

I have written a lot about this subject in recent years if you would like more to read:

In June of last year I wrote a post here on Technology Bloggers called Sequencing the Genome of Unborn Babies. I also raised a lot of similar ethical concerns in May of the same year in Home Genetic Testing, Pros and Cons.

On the Bassetti Foundation we find DNA Privacy Issues from January of this year, a series called Architectures for Life from 2012 and a review of a book called Go Ask Your Father, just for starters.

My own personal view is that much of the promise peddled to us surrounding medicine and the sequencing of the human genome has yet to be delivered. One problem is money. Personalized medicine sounds like a great idea. I get my genome sequenced, we can see which drugs might work the best, the type of treatment I need etc. But drug companies cannot make, test and market a drug especially for me even with all of this information, it is just not cost effective. They want big sellers, generic medicines that work to some extent on everybody, not something that is fantastic for me with my particular gene pool.

There are clinical benefits, I am not arguing otherwise, but we must wait to see how great.

The Third Industrial Revolution

Recently there has been a lot of talk about a third industrial revolution in the making. It is of course that involving 3D printing. Take a look at the other articles on the website for an overview.

The thing about these machines is that they can produce individual tailor made objects at low cost, something that was not really possible in the days of mass production, when multiples were cheap but individual one off projects very expensive.

It is a contentious technology though for several reason, the first being its versatility. A few months ago we had the first fully printed gun, the plans were put online for free before being removed but only after more than 100 000 people downloaded them.100 000 more unlicensed guns in the world possibly. Check out this article.

Another reason is that these machines will completely change manufacturing. The old days of heavy machinery in production lines might be numbered, and this means that the power and financial strength that the organizations that have control of these systems currently posess is about to be lost.

So where should somewhere like MIT here in Cambridge MA stand? They have to support new technology, it is their job, but in doing so they might be undermining their own foundations, rooted as they are in large scale US industry.

3D Printed Prosthetic Hand

3D Printed Prosthetic Hand

As well as the printable gun though there are obviously a million good uses for this technology. Two weeks ago I mentioned an engineering company that is testing an aeroplane engine that uses printed parts, and in case of dire need you can now print a prosthetic hand for about $150 through an open source website. Read the article here.

Last week the Bassetti Foundation sponsored a series of events in San Francisco based around these problems. One of the main speakers was Chris Anderson, ex editor of Wired magazine and author of the book Makers, he is a leader in thinking on these matters. There is plenty of information on the website for interested readers, including videos of the symposium about the political and social implications of a move towards 3D printed manufacture.

3D Printed Motorbike

3D Printed Motorbike

Check out the photos too, here is a printed motorbike. They can produce far more than you imagine.

What is Shodan?

EDITOR NOTE: This is Jonny’s 75th post on Technology Bloggers! Jonny was a complete newbie to blogging when he wrote his first post (about prosthetic limbs) but he is now somewhat of an expert – although he probably wouldn’t agree! – note by Christopher

Recently a couple of articles have appeared on large US websites about a type of search engine called Shodan. This search engine has been about for about 3 years, but it is different from Google and its cohorts in many ways. I looked at it and could not understand it at all, so what is it then and why is it causing such concern?

A screenshot of the Shodan website

Expose online devices

I have seen Shodan described as “The scariest search engine on the Internet”. This CNN money article explains that Shodan navigates the Internet’s back channels. It’s a kind of “dark” Google, looking for the servers, webcams, printers, routers and all the other stuff that is connected to and makes up the Internet.

What interest could there be in such capability? Well a lot apparently. The system allows an individual to find security cameras, cooling systems and all types of home control systems that we have connected to the Internet. (See Christopher’s series about his British Gas system here).

One serious problem is that many of these systems have little or no security because they are not perceived as threatened. Shodan searchers have however found control systems for a water park, a gas station, a hotel wine cooler and a crematorium. Cybersecurity researchers have even located command and control systems for nuclear power plants and a particle-accelerating cyclotron by using Shodan.

Hacking apart it turns out that the world is full of systems that are attached via router to the office computer and web server, and on to the outside world. Access for anyone who can find them and might like to turn of the refrigeration at the local ice rink, shut down a city’s traffic lights or just turn off a hydroelectric plant.

The Shodan system was designed to help police forces and others who might have legitimate need for such a tool, but what when it gets into the wrong hands. Security is non existent, just get your free account and do a few searches and see what you find.

See this Tech News World article for a further look at the ethical and practical issues that such a freely available product might bring

Regular readers will be aware of my interest in these types of problems through my work at the Bassetti Foundation for Responsible Innovation. I am not sure how the development and marketing of such a tool could be seen as responsible behaviour, but as I have been told on many occasions during interviews there are plenty of other ways of finding out such things. These types of systems are gathering already available information to make it usable, nothing more, so not doing anything wrong.

Do you agree?