Jimmy Wales on Smart Censorship

Question: Is there a smart way to censor content?

Jimmy Wales:  Well, yeah, I mean, not that I would encourage this, or support this, but China is increasingly able to filter on keywords.  Filter just the page they don’t like.  And you know, without supporting  that, I would still oppose it.  I would still say that’s a lot better than what they’re doing right now, in being completely ham-handed and blocking whole swathes of the internet, because you don’t like one page is really not good for China.  It’s not good for the economy of China, for the people of china.  And so that’s a very sort of bureaucratic or technical criticism of the current regime, as opposed to a human rights-type criticism.  But I always want to emphasize when I say this that I would still make the human rights criticism.  Well, they could improve things a lot.  It’s actually an interesting question, I think, is what are the ethics around this for Western companies, for US companies?  Because China’s not the only one.  There’re lots of countries around the world who filter the internet and filter certain keywords, certain pages.  And for me, it’s very questionable when we see US companies who are collaborating with that kind of thing.  So just to sort of address the big one, which is Google is in China, Yahoo! is in China, so what do we say about that?  Well, what I say about that is going in and dealing with information in China right now is very similar to doing business in apartheid in South Africa.  There’s something really wrong.  There’re human rights violations going on.  And people used to argue back and forth about whether it was better to boycott or to constructively engage.  In other words, to be there, but operate under a certain set of principles that would encourage change and positive things to happen.  I think that both sides of that argument can be made by reasonable people.  I tend more to the boycott side of things, but I accept and understand that, of course, there are legitimate points on the other side, and it actually can help in a lot of cases.  So Google basically makes that constructive engagement argument.  To say, “Well, look.  The Chinese people are better off with us being there trying to be a positive force for change than if we simply boycotted the country.”  Okay, I accept that, right?  That’s a legitimate thing to say.  But I think what we should do is hold Google’s feet to the fire and say, “Well, what are you doing there?  What’re you doing to help?”  And Google has some answers for that.  I mean, one of the things that they do is they don’t store any user data within China.  They keep all user data.  They don’t have Gmail servers in China, things like that.  That’s so that they can’t be compelled to cough up people’s information in China.  Well, that’s very important.  There’re people in jail in China because Yahoo! has coughed up information about them.  Yahoo!’s answer is, “Well, we have to follow the law in China.”  My answer is, “Yeah.  Sorry, that doesn’t cut it with me.”  There are things that you could do that would take some courage and that would maybe cut into your profit in China a little bit, and you should be doing those things.  And actually, I make that argument not just from a moral or ethical point of view, but just from a hard nose business point of view.  I think if you look at the way the general public looks at the Google brand and the Yahoo! brand, this is one of the components, right?  And I think Google’s brand took a hit when they went into China.  People were really not so comfortable with that.  But even now, I think people would say, “Well, at least nobody’s in jail because of Google in China.”  And well, it’s just a different approach, so.

Recorded on 4/30/08

Keywords, keywords, keywords.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

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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. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. 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.