Wednesday, February 06, 2013

New Technologies and the Cost of Knowledge

Here's some rambling.  But it's been a while...

In general I'm the type of person who believes that knowledge is power.  I typically tend to think that the more facts that you have about other people and the world around you, the better your odds of successfully accomplishing your goals.  Having knowledge about the history and proclivities of the people in your life might help you establish more functional relationships.  Understanding the political intricacies of a large organization might help you avoid traps and find support for ideas or projects.  Understanding how various pieces of technology operate might help you make more informed choices as a consumer.  Understanding climate change might help avoid planting inappropriate crops or shape views regarding water conservation.
My belief that knowledge is power has led to another conclusion- the belief that the pursuit of knowledge, in and of itself, is a positive, beneficial endeavor.
In the last week, however, I've read a couple of things that have drawn that second assumption into question.
First I read an article about genetic testing in Time.  It was called "The DNA Dilemma:  A Test that Could Change Your Life".  The article described the explosion in genetic testing that's been occurring as a technology improves and the process becomes less and less expensive.  People are now capable of having their entire genetic code mapped for under $10,000, and the price is dropping fast.  Such testing is currently on track to become more and more pervasive.  Genetic testing allows patients to understand the root causes of mysterious symptoms so that diseases can be diagnosed and be treated.  Testing also allows people to know when they have a genetic predisposition toward developing particular diseases and conditions later in life.  Such knowledge may allow preventative measures to be taken which might decrease the odds of developing such an illness (e.g., dietary restrictions for people who have an increased risk of diabetes, avoiding contact sports might be a good idea for people with an increased likelihood of concussions).
Such knowledge sounds like a good thing to have, right?
Well, the down side is that conditions might be discovered for which there are no treatments, and sometimes such knowledge can be gained by accident when doctors begin testing for the causes of other, completely unrelated symptoms.  Children might go in for testing for some issue related to unexplained weakness or fatigue and find out that they're likely to develop early onset dementia in their mid forties.  People can find out that they have an impossibly high likelihood of developing untreatable cancer.
Alerting patients about conditions for which there is no treatment may cause anxiety and stress that can begin to take its toll on quality of life years or decades before symptoms start to develop.  Patients may be warned of a high statistical probability that they will develop an untreatable disease (genetic testing often conveys its information in terms of probabilities) and then develop anxiety and depression while dealing with this news only to never have the disease actually develop.  With prenatal genetic testing, parents may be forced to consider questions of financial obligations and quality of life for unborn children with genetic abnormalities many years before such conditions might or would ever manifest.   
I don't mean to get too ahead of myself or sound too alarmist, but the idea of mothers regularly getting genetic testing before deciding whether or not to carry children fully to term doesn't sound completely far fetched.  And judgments regarding what sort of genetic "abnormality" might warrant the termination of a pregnancy are bound to be a very slippery slope (things that will cause lifelong pain and suffering to the child?  a lower than desired IQ?  blue eyes as opposed to brown?).  When current law allows for termination of pregnancy solely at the discretion of the mother for any or no reason at all, is society in any position to tell parents that any one rationale is better than another when deciding whether to carry a pregnancy to term?
If those topics sound kind of unpleasant, I only bring them up because I think widespread implementation of this sort of testing is right around the corner.  How are people going to use them?  These questions are barely in the realm of the hypothetical (and for some people they already are reality).  We're at a point where we're soon going to have to start establishing some societal norms in terms of what sort of genetic information we should all be privy to and how that information can be used.
When polled, parents overwhelmingly have wanted to have access to genetic information about their children.  Doctors and care providers have been far less certain. 
Would insurance companies find ways to refuse coverage to people with a genetic predisposition toward serious (i.e., expensive) diseases?  Should parents spend their lives being hyper protective of children simply because there's a possibility that they might someday develop some sort of disorder?  Should parents be burdened with the knowledge that their children are likely to develop some sort of disease at some far distant point in the child's geriatric years?  
As I said, I'm beginning to question whether it is genuinely always better to pursue all available sources of knowledge.

The second thing that I read this week that made me question whether it's always the best policy to gain as much information as possible came in the form of an article about drones.  Drones, unmanned aerial vehicles, have been used for quite a while now in foreign countries by the American military and our intelligence agencies.  Initially used solely as high altitude reconnaissance machines, drones (such as the predator) later gained the ability to be used as weapons either by crashing into targets while carrying explosives or by deploying missiles.
There have been a number of controversies regarding our use of drones in foreign combat theaters (e.g., Iraq, Afghanistan) and even in foreign countries where we're not at war (e.g., Pakistan).  Some of the controversies include acceptable levels of collateral damage (i.e., civilian casualties), the psychological toll upon civilian populations in target areas, the foreign relations damage that drone attacks may cause, and the legal and ethical dilemma created by using drones to attack countries in countries where the U.S. has not officially declared war or even announced a military presence.
So there are already some pretty big questions surrounding the drone program. 
Now the federal government seems to be seeking increased FAA clearance for the deployment of additional drones domestically, in U.S. skies.
Drones have been used for years along the U.S.-Mexico border as a means of controlling illegal immigration and enhancing border security.  Now the federal government is taking steps to increase the number of drones that can be used for everything from law enforcement to traffic control to farming to wildlife management.  Drones could be used to inspect buildings, search for lost backpackers, perform security at big events, track wildfires, etc., etc..
Of course, one of the things that drones truly excel at, one of the tasks which they were originally designed for and which makes their use in a domestic setting kind of troubling, is keeping an eye on the activities of the people below them.    Drones with night vision and infrared can watch people at night.  Almost undetectable, they can observe activities on the ground from 20,000 feet up or more.  Thermal imaging is said to allow some of them to see through walls, foliage, and other solid objects.
Drones are very good at gaining information.  They can probably spot smugglers and human traffickers and cattle rustlers (that last example sounds weird, but the first time domestic drones were used for a law enforcement purpose was to catch cattle thieves in North Dakota in 2011).
Also, of course, drones can see your lady sunbathing in your backyard or see you and the missus making out in the hot tub or, if the rumors about thermal imaging are half accurate, see you up to... whatever... in your bedroom.  They can keep an eye on who you're hanging out with and where you're going and where you're coming from.  They can spot you coming from your AA meeting or headed to a campaign event for that candidate who's running against your boss.  They can see people headed into abortion clinics and they can take snapshots of faces at political rallies.  They can spot you sneaking off to go to that job interview for a rival company when you're supposed to be at a doctor's appointment.  They can spot you going to see a shrink or visiting with a reporter.
It's bad enough to contemplate the prospect of drones in the hands of a government that might potentially abuse them, but it's perhaps even more troubling to realize that, at present, there don't really seem to be many plans for the restriction of private drone ownership or deployment.  Companies and private individuals might soon have access to some very powerful surveillance equipment, and there may be very little that the people on the ground can do to protect their privacy against these flying spies. 
Drones are obviously pretty good at collecting information, but the ability to obtain that information sounds like it's coming at a significant cost.  Are we about to enter an age when people have no right to an expectation of privacy so long as they're in a place or situation that might be observable to the high tech surveillance equipment of flying robots?
I think we're starting to edge toward an area where the knowledge that we stand to gain might be outweighed by the societal costs that we're about to incur.
Just because we can do something doesn't always mean that we should.

I guess in the end I think that genetic testing and drones both probably have their uses.  The real problem isn't the fact that the technologies exist- it's the fact that we're rushing forward to implement and embrace them on a widespread scale without really having had much of a genuine societal discussion about how these things should be used.
I don't think doctors should disseminate all genetic information that they obtain on every patient.  Who should make the decision to release it?  I'm not sure.  Maybe we need some sort of new legal/medical entity who is authorized to make those decisions and release or withhold information in particular situations (i.e., when the information might cause harm or could be acted upon in some potentially effective way). 
I'm not sure.
I think we need greater restrictions on the use of drones by the government when they're used in the U.S. (judicial oversight and warrant requirements would be nice), and I think private use of drones needs to be even more restricted, with criminal and civil penalties in place for abuse of the technology.  Drones will certainly have some legitimate uses, but I don't want to live in a world where I can never feel alone when I'm outside.
Once again, I could be wrong about my solutions, but I feel certain that we need to have a greater conversation about the use of drones before they start becoming commonplace in our skies.

I guess that's it.  That's all that I have.
Thanks for bearing with me.  Kind of a random post. 
Hope I didn't lose everyone.


The League said...

I think I heard the story on NPR somewhere, but the challenge of the "likelihood" issue with your genes is that they've been doing tests to look for commonalities, but when they do look at the general populace, they see all sort of things that look like time bombs that just aren't going off. So, maybe those percentages aren't that right on the money, and the suggestion was - we actually have a long way to go to figure out what DOES trigger those genes.

Anyway, yeah, I worry enough that I'll be denied coverage at some point because I have relatives that died of diseases in the past and I might get a disease. Any disease.

Damned actuaries.

Also, yeah, we're totally boned on the drone thing. I'm less worried some G Man is watching me shower than that they can fly a bomb in through my bathroom window and apparently Obama is giving himself powers to kill American citizens if he wakes up on the wrong side of the bed - no checks or balances. No way that's going to get abused at some point.

But I'm still buying dad a toy helicopter for his birthday.

J.S. said...

You WISH the government would send drones to watch you shower.

The drone program is very controversial for a number of reasons. One big issue with it, though, is that people are upset that we're killing suspected terrorists in other countries without having declared war there. Primarily this complaint has arisen b/c of drone strikes in Pakistan.
Here's the thing- I think that the Pakistani government probably has secretly given the U.S. permission to carry out drone strikes within its borders, but it can't publicly admit their agreement for fear of civil unrest among an angry militant Muslim population within their own borders. The U.S. probably told them that they risk war if they didn't agree to SOME sort of military action to ferret out Al Qaeda and other terrorists within Pakistan, so they agreed to allow the strikes- but the Pakistanis can't admit to their own people that they're allowing the strikes and the U.S. probably agreed not to disclose the fact that we have covert permission.
And Obama probably needs some sort of court approval before targetting American citizens, BUT if a court is convinced that they engaged in terrorism, I say take 'em out. I don't think terrorists should get preferential treatment b/'c they're American.

The League said...

That's been the issue with the DoJ papers that were making the rounds - they really were giving Obama pretty sweeping powers, I guess, to execute Americans without any oversight.

I'd be lying if I said I'd read more than a couple of paragraphs before I got depressed and looked at pictures of dancing dogs or something else online, so I can't say i have a full grasp of the details.

But, yes, the scenario you describe in Pakistan makes sense, especially when you consider that we also wandered in and killed someone on their soil with our military.

And the government could do a lot worse than to peep on me. I'm not saying I'm giving them permission, I'm just saying.

J.S. said...

Who are you kidding? You're totally giving them permission. You might even feel a little hurt if they didn't peep on you.