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Editor’s note: This post was written by Tyr Fothergill. Dr. Fothergill works as a member of the EU’s Human Brain Project. Below is a post about an interesting outreach effort from April 2018.
Human Brain Project Ethics Support Outreach at the PAX East Gaming Convention, 4-9 April 2018
As part of my work on the Human Brain Project as a member of the Ethics and Society Subproject, I design and take part in outreach activities on behalf of my work package, Ethics Support. The most recent of these was at PAX East in Boston, MA, U.S.A.
PAX is an extraordinarily popular gaming convention held in multiple locations yearly, and is an excellent opportunity to embrace the “engage with diverse stakeholders” aspect of the Responsible Research and Innovation AREA framework (e.g. Stilgoe at al. 2013). Gamers are often early adopters of innovative technology, and PAX attendees may be amongst the first to benefit from the outcomes of large Brain Projects like the HBP. Furthermore, participants in PAX tend to be interested in deeper issues related to gaming and tech, and are excited to discuss these with experts. Gamers are often knowledgeable about technology and more comfortable being presented with complex or innovative research than other “lay audiences”. In addition, neuro-diversity is well-represented in the wider gaming community, which may make brain-related research more interesting or personally relevant to some participants. These attributes make the attendees of PAX an ideal range of stakeholders to reach order to bolster the public acceptability of research into AIs and brain-related technologies through the lens of gaming.
Attendance estimates of the 2017 PAX East convention range from 70,000 to 110,000 people. PAX features “typical” video game convention offerings like demos, meet-and-greets, panels by developers or gaming celebrities, opportunities to see or use new software or hardware, and terrible food.
PAX presents a remarkable opportunity for games and tech-based social research, awareness-raising, and outreach. I was invited to represent the Human Brain Project’s Ethics Support group at Dr. Catherine Flick’s Ask An Ethicist PAX booth, an established outpost of friendly, scholarly social inquiry which I helped to support in a non-neuroscience-related capacity in 2017. The Ask an Ethicist booth not only accommodates first-hand research (surveys, questionnaires, testing of programmes designed to increase tech or communication accessibility) but also involves informal conversations about technology, privacy, research, ethics, data, etc.
I created a PAX panel from an “infotainment” angle called “BRAAAAAAAINS: Archaeology and Philosophy of Zombies in Video Games” which covered David Chalmers’s “philosophical zombies” thought experiment, selected case studies from archaeology covering some origins of modern ideas around “zombie” that informed later depictions in films and other material culture. We linked these ideas to specific popular video game scenarios involving zombies, which led to a historical contextualisation of what zombies represent in terms of public opinions and trust. We touched upon issues around neuroscience and ICT, including consciousness, animacy, personhood, post-mortem agency, and undeath in video games, asking the audience whether general AI could potentially be considered a form of zombie, etc. We also took the opportunity to call attention to the U.S. Brain Initiative and Neuroethics division.
Drs. Catherine Flick (L) and Tyr Fothergill (R) prepare to discuss video game zombies and the future of neuroscience
At the Ask an Ethicist booth, we asked PAX attendees a series of questions regarding video games, experiences, and research and innovation ethics over the course of the convention (e.g. “What video game represents a future that we should work toward?”), and received more than 400 responses. Approximately 370 people attended the BRAAAAAAAINS panel, and they asked 69 questions in the anonymous online forum during the panel, but we overran our slot and many sought us out at the Ask an Ethicist Booth later for further queries. The vast majority of questions we received were directly related to ethics and neuroscience or ICT. We ran out of time to respond to all of these, and plan to address them in future episodes of “Not Just a Game”, Dr. Flick’s ethics and gaming podcast. All told, we made more than 700 people aware of the Ethics Support group and the Human Brain Project.
I am confident that using video games as a way to engage members of the public with ethical issues in topics such as general and specific AI, “brain-inspired” computing, medical data, and neuroscientific investigation more generally) is impactful. When the story about prolonging the life of pig brains broke, I was immediately contacted on Twitter by someone who had seen our panel at PAX, and wanted to know what I thought about it.
The Prezi and the video of us speaking with the panel slides are available online.
Stilgoe, J., Owen, R. and Macnaghten, P., 2013. Developing a framework for responsible innovation. Research Policy, 42(9), pp.1568-1580.
Dr. Jennifer Sarrett is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at Emory University’s Center for the Study of Human Health, where she teaches courses in Health Humanities, Bioethics and Disability, and Mental Illness and Culture. Her work focuses on intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) as they relate to culture, disability rights, and ethics. She began working in the field of autism and developmental 15 years ago as a special education instructor and consultant in the U.S. and abroad. With the objective of studying the role of culture in the identification, understanding, and treatment of autistic children, she obtained her PhD from Emory’s Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts (ILA), a unique interdisciplinary program. Her dissertation compared parental and professional experiences of autism in Atlanta, GA and Kerala, India. Along the way she became interested in neuroethical issues related to I/DD, including international research ethics, human rights and I/DD, and the implications of emerging technologies for early identification and diagnosis. Her work is strongly influenced by the concept of neurodiversity, a scholarly and advocacy position that works to encourage acceptance of neurological differences, including autism, rather than seeking cures and strategies to normalize autistic behavior. Dr. Sarrett has published a range of articles, including the development of a more inclusive model of human rights centered on a consideration of autistic difference; the ways images of autism depict and promote damaging tropes about autism; cultural influences on the ways parents explain their child’s autism (Spring, 2015); and ethical issues related to international research on I/DD. Read the rest of this entry »
This blog post by Jennifer Sarrett was originally featured on The Neuroethics Blog.
Jennifer C. Sarrett started working with people on the autism spectrum in 1999 in Athens, GA while getting her B.S. in Psychology. In 2005, she completed her M.Ed. in Early Childhood Special Education with a focus on autism from Vanderbilt University. She is currently a fifth year doctoral student in Emory University’s Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts working on her dissertation which compares parental and professional experiences of autism in Atlanta, GA and Kerala, India as well as the ethical issues the arise when engaging in international, autism-related work.
On Friday, December 14th 2012, the country learned of the mass shooting of 5- and 6-year-old children and several adults in Newtown, CT. By the end of the day, we learned that Adam Lanza, the perpetrator of the heinous act, may be autistic. Although we now know that this is not the case, it has spurred conversations about the link between autism and violence. This mental illness guessing-game has become the norm in the wake of such tragedies. Jared Loughner and James Holmes may have been schizophrenic; Sueng-Hi Cho may have been depressed, anxious, and also possibly autistic; Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold may have been depressed and/or psychopathic. These speculations are understandable – the public yearns to understand the motives behind such acts and recognizes that good mental health and mass shootings are never coupled–however, the way these representations are presented to the community create stigma and blames others with similar disabilities.
In Media Madness:Public Images of Mental Illness, psychologist Otto Walh explains that the public does not get its information about mental illness from evidenced-based, professional sources, rather, “[i]t is far more likely that the public’s knowledge of mental illness comes from sources closer to home, sources to which we are all exposed on a daily basis–namely, the mass media.”  The media (i.e. news, television, movies, video games, popular literature) often provides these links casually but carefully. Reports may mention Adam Lanza had autism, but don’t make the causal link between this diagnosis and his crimes. Yet in the minds of readers, the association is made. Read the rest of this entry »
Does this lab coat make me look fat? Response to sexist comments made during Society for Neuroscience
Here is my response to sexist comments made during the recent Society for Neuroscience conference. “Even more troubling than Maestripieri’s adolescent wailing is how some women have tacitly accepted his subjugating rhetoric. Rebuttals in which women say that they “know plenty of beautiful female neuroscientists” or insist, “Hey, I’m not ugly!,” miss the point to such a degree that even our advocates can’t advocate for us.” The rest can be read here. I encourage you to weigh in and share your comments here or on The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Tressie McMillan Cottom is an Emory PhD student in Sociology. She uses “mixed methods to examine why students choose for-profit colleges, if for-profit credentials are socially construed as legitimate, and what these interactions means for social mobility and labor outcomes across and within national contexts.” Tressie is a prolific and talented writer and currents holds a Public Voices Thought Leadership Fellowship at Emory’s Center for Women.
Below is a blurb from her recent blog post originally posted on her blog tressiemc. The overarching sentiment is a well-articulated personal experience of how “some rules are different for different groups of people” whether these rules are explicitly stated or not (which is usually the case).
“Part of professionalization in academia involves learning the unpublished rules of how to act, engage, and be an academic. Almost all of us, at some point of our training, is pulled aside and told the “real” rules of publishing, teaching, and cocktail mixers.
Minorities – be they ethnic, class, or gendered – sometimes don’t get the same level of counseling on such things. A lot of programs have sprung up to bridge the information gap. That’s a good thing.”
Read more here.
After launching a NEW Leaders Facebook group, I was posed the following question by a concerned neuroscience graduate student.
“If the field is largely pioneered and led by women, does it need an advocacy group biased toward women? Are the aims of “cultivating professional networks and skills for women” addressing areas where women are, in fact, deficient? I remain highly skeptical of explicitly discriminatory organizations unless they are aimed at addressing issues unique to the specific group.”
I said this in response:
“Hi XXX. Thanks for your concern. While the field is largely pioneered by women, this doesn’t mean that careers in the field won’t have the same problems women and minorities have in any field (i.e. finding similar opportunities as men, being paid as well as men, being able to find social networks and resources for professional growth to name a few–please see my article discussing research about this here: https://neuroethicswomenleaders.wordpress.com/2012/06/19/pregnancydisability/). Your argument resonates with those who say we don’t need affirmative action anymore too. While it’s true that women and minorities have made much progress, we have not overcome the historical narrative that still underlies the overall under-representation of women and minorities in (sustaining) positions of leadership worldwide in any field (including neuroethics). There are many cultural norms, even some that have been adopted and integrated into our own ideology and women, that we must overcome. The truth is women and men still aren’t on equal footing.And this is why we aim to address this challenge with an advocacy group. All fields deserve scholarship informed by a diverse set of world views and, unlike what you suggest, I would hardly think a field of exclusively women is any better than field that are almost exclusively white males. I encourage you to be open to learning more about advocacy groups for women and minorities, as you may have employees and students who will need advisors who are aware of the unique challenges that face us.”
This is just one of many examples of why we need NEW Leaders. I believe this is an important question that each of us should be able to address.
What do you think?