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Forbidden Technology

Sex Robots, Climate Hacking, And Other Taboo Technologies

Could robots soon meet the emotional needs of human beings?
Linda Bucklin/Tech Republic
Forbidden Technology

Innovators and inventors alike seem to be creating new technologies at a faster rate than we can keep up with, and as the technological output flow keep us in a whirlwind of amazement, the practical use for these inventions could blur ethical and moral lines. That leaves us in a limbo. Can we be a progressive, innovative society within ethical means? Are some technologies ethically unsound? Are we able to access all information regarding the technology we own? 

Antonio Regalado, biotech editor and reporter for the MIT Technology Review, joined WGBH's Morning Edition host Bob Seay for a conversation about their list of the top taboo technologies. 

Regalado dubs this concept as "forbidden technologies" in his article 'Seven Questions about Technology You Aren’t Even Allowed to Ask'. Such technologies are described as controversial ideas that attempt to solve certain problems but have raised ethical concerns, making it difficult to gain funding for research or approval for testing.

Sex Robots For Pedophiles

Regalado admits he's not an expert on this topic but says sex robots are becoming increasingly popular. Researchers want to study sex robots and the way humans interact with them — especially among pedophiles. Regalado says a handful of researchers would like to study how pedophiles react to child-size sex robots and explore questions such as: 'do they prompt arousal'? Robot ethicist Kate Darling of the MIT Media Lab would like to explore how much of a safe outlet sex robots provide pedophiles. Regalado says this technology brings about what he calls "an empathy crisis". 

...what's going to happen when people start to have emotional relationships with artificial intelligence?

Well, it can be complicated. Regalado adds that conducting research with pedophiles would require full disclosure with law enforcement. 

Climate Engineering/Hacking 

Regalado says some scientists have ideas on how to lower the earth's temperature to halt the effects of climate change. But testing proves challenging due to lack of funding and federal support. Regalado says even those who believe in global warming aren't comfortable with climate engineering because it could prompt irresponsible resource consumption without the negative effects on the environment (i.e. driving cars, burning gasoline). Regalado says environmentalists consider this conflict a moral hazard. 

Health Care Cost-Effectiveness 

Regalado says technology is the primary reason why health care costs in the U.S. are so high. But Americans aren't seeing high returns.

 "And a lot of times people want to use some newfangled technology and the costs are extraordinary and the benefits are low," he adds. 

The Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI), an independent nonprofit, nongovernmental organization in Washington, D.C. spent $491 million to study which medical treatments work best. But part of the legislation that created PCORI under Obamacare restricts the examination of cost effectiveness. 

Smartphones Emitting Radio Signals 

Regalado says whistleblower Edward Snowden and scientist Bunnie Huang collaborated on a project to determine if a smartphone would still emit radio signals if it were put onto sleep or airplane mode. Huang and Snowden determined that in fact, even when a phone is powered off, it's still emitting pings. Potentially dangerous? Regalado says Snowden thinks so — especially when trying to conceal one's location while in a high conflict area. So who's really in control of a smartphone- the user or the provider? Regalado reports that federal law restricts a user from being completely detached from the state when using communication technology. 

When asked if society will eventually come to accept these technologies, Regalado says that people have and will always question new technologies. But society learns to adapt, eventually. 

To listen to the entire interview with WGBH's Bob Seay and Antonio Regalado, click the on audio player above. 

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