Big Data is a big deal. Not only is it a major asset in today's tech-driven economy, it also has the ability to tell stories about who we are as a people. Such is the aim of Christian Rudder's new book Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One's Looking).
Rudder is the Co-founder and President of the online dating site OkCupid, so you be assured he knows all about data and demographics. In fact, Dataclysm is a work very similar in subject matter to the OkTrends blog he maintained for several years at OkCupid. The popular blog offered a unique brand of social analysis relying on statistics gathered from the site's userbase. Dataclysm explains how data scientists have become the newest breed of demographers.
Any conversation about online data invariably segues into a discussion about privacy and ownership rights. Who exactly owns your online data? When a site like Facebook or OkCupid sells your information to advertisers, should you be entitled to a cut? After all, your personal likes and follows are assets you created, right?
Rudder poses this counter-argument:
"Facebook's argument and obviously OkCupid's argument is, well, what we're giving you in exchange for your data -- very clearly -- are these tools. Like on OkCupid you can find dates. On Facebook you can connect with long lost friends. You have an easy platform to collect pictures. To the extent that any of these sites are useful, that's why people use them."
Basically, it's a trade-off. In exchange for your data, Facebook lets you use their site for free. While these sites are definitely in the business of making money, it's not necessarily yours they're after. You can assume that almost any website you visit for free is gathering information about you. This isn't always for the purpose of advertising. Basic data analytics help websites identify their audiences. On OkTrends and in Dataclysm, Rudder utilized user data to study social truths and trends. These are examples of data use on a macro- rather than micro- level.
While Rudder is a proponent of the data-for-access agreement, he believes that one should always have the option to flip the off-switch on that deal for good:
"I think there's a good argument for you being able to – when you're tired of that exchange - "I don't want to use Facebook anymore!" - you should be able to exit that experience wholly rather than leaving whatever vestige of yourself you have to leave now. I know that they give you tools for that and the world I think generally is coming around this idea, but it is scary even to me as an owner of one of these websites, if you're going to sit there and live online, and for whatever reason you want to break up with the site that you're still beholden to them even after you've made that decision."
Finally, Rudder offers a few thoughts on privacy, particularly with regard to the future:
"Privacy historically has been a luxury of the rich in certain ways. Like I bring up these examples in the book but you want to have a private car on a train, you want to have a house with walls or a house with a big yard walls, you want to live in some remote stretch out in Woodstock or wherever... But for the Internet - it's hard to argue that it will be easier to remain off-line."
So Rudder posits a future scenario. If privacy remains a luxury and the prospect of maintaining a low profile online becomes less and less attainable moving forward, it's fair to assume the most private online experiences will be reserved for the wealthy who can afford the ability to avoid the spotlight.
For more about about Dataclysm and online privacy, watch the following clip from Christian Rudder's Big Think interview:
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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- 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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