To make a smartphone, lose your ethics

How is a smartphone made? Nearly every stage in the smartphone life cycle involves something ethically questionable.


The fact that smartphones exist at all is nothing short of a miracle. Regardless of the considerable technical accomplishments they represent, the logistics involved in building a smartphone is complicated and widely distributed. On average, it takes 62 different metals to build a smartphone, including cobalt, gold, and rare-earth metals like yttrium and scandium. There are many hundreds of components involved, and the sourcing, processing, and assembly of these components takes place across the globe.

However, with a supply chain this large and complex, it is easy to either overlook or ignore the major ethical concerns related to how smartphones are built. For example, 60% of the world's cobalt supply comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), much of it mined by the estimated 40,000 child laborers in that country. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, children in the DRC engage “in the forced mining of gold, tin ore (cassiterite), tantalum ore (coltan), and tungsten ore (wolframite)," and are used “in armed conflict, sometimes as a result of forcible recruitment or abduction by non-state armed groups." Many mines in the DRC are controlled by militias who use children as laborers to fund their activities in the region. The minerals sold by these groups find their way into the smartphones, batteries, and other electrical devices that most of us use on a daily basis.


March 30, 2017: Miners at a Kalimbi cassiterite artisanal mining site in the DRC. This is an “artisanal" mine, where the mining is done by hand. (Photo by Griff Tapper/AFP/Getty Images)

Several years ago, a report by Amnesty International exposed the reliance of major smartphone manufacturers, like Apple and Samsung, on child labor in the DRC. As a result, smartphone companies made a variety of promises ranging from investigating their supply chains to ending the practice of sourcing material from “artisanal" mines—so called because the mining there takes place by hand. However, a follow-up report showed that the actions taken by industry leaders were mostly insufficient. Children are still mining cobalt in the DRC, and there is evidence that the product from artisanal mines and conflict-free mines are often mixed together, making it difficult to definitively say that child labor was not involved in any particular batch of minerals.

Once the minerals are out of the ground, they must be processed and assembled into smartphone components. In two factories in Vietnam, the mostly female workers reported working up to 12 hours a day, experiencing dizziness and fainting episodes, and anticipating miscarriages. In China, workers slice and blast phone casings, exposing themselves to particulate chemicals and the 80-decibel sounds of machinery without the protection of respirators, gloves, or earplugs.


Chinese workers producing mobile phone handsets in Guangdong province. (Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images)

This behavior isn't anything new. Nike, for example, made notorious use of sweatshops in Indonesia, China, and Vietnam. After a series of boycotts and consumer protests, Nike raised wages, implemented safety standards, and began publishing reports on the various contractors it used abroad.

Ideally, there would be a company that produces an ethically sourced smartphone as an alternative. It would be more expensive, certainly, but many consumers might value a phone that wasn't produced using child labor or sweatshops.

However, the existing supply chains for smartphones makes this literally impossible to do. Fairphone, a company founded in 2013 with the explicit goal of developing an ethical smartphone, has acknowledged that developing a 100% fair phone is not possible. In an interview on the Team Human podcast, Bas van Abel, the founder of Fairphone, said, “We already knew this was a strategically naïve exercise … We [were] going to look for conflict-free mines [in Congo]. That doesn't mean that we didn't have child labor. To be honest, I think the first expense we had when we started Fairphone was bribing the Minister of Communications of Congo to be able to film in the mines. And these are the dilemmas we run into."

Unfortunately, the impact of smartphones on human lives doesn't end at the point of sale. After they are thrown out or recycled, smartphones often find new life in e-waste dumps in China, Ghana, India, Pakistan, and other low-income countries. When a smartphone is recycled (and only around 10% are), most of its components end up in e-waste dumps where workers retrieve the phone's valuable metals. Storing and processing e-waste, which is often done through burning, causes pollutants like lead, tin, and brominated flame retardants to leach into the surrounding environment and, consequently, the bodies of workers.


Workers burns electronic waste at Agbogboshie, an e-waste dump site in Ghana. (Photo by Cristina Aldehuela/AFP/Getty Images)

While this may be disheartening, it doesn't mean that it's pointless to be an ethical consumer when it comes to smartphones. Rather, it indicates that there is a significant amount of work to be done. One of the best things to do is to simply buy fewer smartphones. If taken care of, a smartphone can last up to 7 years. However, most people buy a new smartphone every 2.5 years. While it may not be possible to buy an entirely ethical smartphone, minimizing the use of child labor, sweatshops, and conflict minerals is still desirable and can be done by voting with our dollars and supporting ethical manufacturers.

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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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