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We have an ethical obligation to end individual animal suffering

Last winter, unforgettable video footage online showed a starving polar bear, struggling in its Arctic hunting grounds. Because of global warming, the ice was thin and the food supply was scarce. The video generated a wellspring of sympathy for the plight of this poor creature, and invigorated calls for stronger efforts to combat climate change–and rightly so.

Such advocacy on behalf of wildlife usually focuses on species and the effects of human-caused climate change on their survival and well-being as the ecosystems on which they depend undergo drastic changes. Thus, we should act to save the polar bear–that is, the polar bear species–by doing what we can to preserve its natural ecosystem. I am fully behind this kind of advocacy. Anybody who cares about the future of our planet and its occupants should be.

But I would also like to make a plea not simply for polar bears at large, but for this particular polar bear–the one in the video.

In his book Animal Liberation (1975), the philosopher Peter Singer argues that it is morally wrong to treat non-human animals in certain inhumane ways. To be precise, they should not be treated in ways that make them suffer. As sentient beings–beings capable of experiencing pleasure and pain–they have a defensible, prima facie interest in being spared unnecessary pain and suffering. Discussing who and what should be included within the sphere of our moral concern, Singer quotes the 19th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham to ask: ‘The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?’ Countering what he calls ‘speciesist’ assumptions, Singer argues that there can be no moral justification for regarding the pain that animals feel as less important than the same amount of pain felt by humans. There might, he concedes, be other reasons to give preference to a human life over an animal life. But in the absence of such compelling principled considerations, we must avoid causing suffering in all creatures that are capable of experiencing it.

[Source Image: Blake Guidry/Unsplash]

It seems to me clear that, in light of global warming, Singer’s arguments need to be amended. According to his application of the utilitarian doctrine to the welfare of non-human animals, their suffering must be considered when weighing the utility values of various actions and practices. But the implications of climate change mean that the scope of actions that are proscribed–and, especially, prescribed–by a consideration of animal suffering should be broadened. It would seem to follow from Singer’s use of that doctrine not only that we must not positively treat non-human animals in certain ways, but also that we are morally bound to relieve their suffering where we can do so without a comparable loss on our part. As far as I know, Singer does not explicitly make this extension to non-human animals, but his principles imply it. In the essay “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” (1972), he proposes that we are morally obliged to provide aid to human beings living in poverty and to the victims of natural and man-made disasters, regardless of their geographical distance from us, provided that our contribution does not entail a significant loss to ourselves (for example, you are not obliged to impoverish yourself to relieve the poverty of others):

If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it. By ‘without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance’ I mean without causing anything else comparably bad to happen, or doing something that is wrong in itself, or failing to promote some moral good, comparable in significance to the bad thing that we can prevent.

This “uncontroversial” principle of altruism, Singer says, ‘requires us only to prevent what is bad … and it requires this of us only when we can do it without sacrificing anything that is, from the moral point of view, comparably important’. Thus, all things being equal, there is no moral excuse for not doing what we can to alleviate the suffering of people who are dying from lack of food, shelter and medical care, regardless of geographical proximity or distance. Just because they might be thousands of kilometers away, for example, doesn’t mean that we are not obliged to take the money that we would have spent on a luxury item and instead donate it to an international relief agency.

In light of Singer’s general views on the moral consideration due to the suffering of non-human animals, the extension of the principle of altruism to such creatures–not species, but individual animals–seems to be trivial. After all, once again, there is no morally relevant difference in terms of the capacity to suffer. In other words, we are obliged to help that starving polar bear.

What happened to this animal? Did the witnesses of its suffering intervene? Did the videographer and his crew take any steps to save it? Usually such efforts on behalf of this or that particular animal meet resistance, even discouragement, on the grounds that we should not intervene as nature “takes its course.”

Now put aside the fact that nature is taking such a course only because it has been altered, perhaps irrevocably, by irresponsible human activity, to the detriment of the members of other species (not to mention our own). Even so, how much weight should we give to this “leave nature alone” argument? Here is an animal that is suffering. Should we (or the people who take such videos) do anything to help it?

From an ethical perspective, the answer seems to me to be clear: yes, absolutely. Moreover, Singer’s brand of utilitarianism and its extension to non-human animals, demands this answer. Anyone who accepts Singer’s arguments that we are morally obliged both (a) not to treat animals in a certain way, because of their capacity to suffer (similar to ours), and (b) to relieve the suffering of human beings (as long as it does not involve a comparable loss on our part) must also grant (c) that we are morally obliged also to relieve the suffering of non-human animals when it is possible to do so and without comparable loss on our part.

Of course, we do often acknowledge such a duty to help animals that suffer, especially when it is clear that such suffering is directly related to human activity. We typically come to the aid of waterfowl harmed by oil spills, sea mammals incapacitated by plastic floating in the oceans, and animals injured by vehicles. But here is the sticking point: why should it be any different with animals whose suffering is less obviously or directly related–and perhaps not related at all–to human activity, suffering for which we less clearly bear responsibility, or for which we bear no responsibility at all?

A failure to help that polar bear–or any individual animal in a comparable condition, regardless of our responsibility (direct or indirect) for that suffering–is callous and morally wrong. Nor can lack of action be defended by some alleged concern for the course of nature (“We must not interfere!”) or the gene pool of the species (“Let the weak die!”). Consider someone who would use those same arguments to justify not intervening to help relieve the suffering of particular human beings during a famine or after a tsunami, or someone who would use such arguments to say that we should not give antibiotics to a child with pneumonia. Such an attitude, reminiscent of various Charles Dickens characters, would be rejected out of hand as immoral. If the only morally relevant factor is “can they suffer?” there is no relevant moral difference when animals suffer pain that we can alleviate.Aeon counter – do not remove


Steven Nadler is the William H Hay II professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His books include Spinoza: A Life (1999), A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age (2011), The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painter: A Portrait of Descartes (2013), Heretics! The Wondrous (and Dangerous) Beginnings of Modern Philosophy (with Ben Nadler). His biography Menasseh ben Israel: Rabbi of Amsterdam (2018) has just been published. 

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Most teens keep risk-taking impulses in check

Most teens have behavioral brakes, and use them, to keep risk-taking experiments and impulsive behavior in check, a new study reports.

The study, which appears in Journal of Youth and Adolescence, finds that only a subset of teens—those with weak cognitive control—engage in excessive levels of impulsiveness, such as acting without thinking, and end up struggling with addictions or other behavioral problem as young adults.

The research challenges traditional thinking that adolescence is a time of universal imbalance.

Cognitive control is the ability to exert top-down control over behavior, thoughts, and emotions. This ability, tied to executive functions, rests in the brain’s prefrontal cortex.

“People have heard so much about the teenage brain being all gas and no brakes, stemming from an imbalance between the reward and control regions of the brain,” says Atika Khurana, a professor and director of graduate programs in the prevention science program at the University of Oregon. “This study shows that this is not true. There is an imbalance for some youth, but it is not universal.”

The findings, she says, challenge traditional thinking that adolescence is a time of universal imbalance, with kids lacking cognitive control and taking risks to reap instant rewards.

Khurana and colleagues analyzed six waves of data collected from 387 adolescents, ages 11 to 18, in the Philadelphia area. They looked at changes in sensation-seeking and impulsivity during teenage years in relation to cognitive control and as predictors of substance use disorders in late adolescence.

Only those teens with weakness in cognitive control were at risk for impulsive behaviors, putting them at higher risk for substance abuse. While sensation-seeking did increase during teenage years, it was not associated with weakness in cognitive control or later substance abuse.

“Previous studies modeling changes in impulsivity and sensation seeking during adolescence drew conclusions based on age differences without looking at the same adolescents over time as they developed,” Khurana says. “This study looked at individual trajectories and captured distinct patterns of change that were not otherwise observable when looking at youth at different ages.”

Today’s teens aren’t as into drugs, alcohol, or theft

The study supported predictions of the Lifespan Wisdom Model developed by coauthor Daniel Romer of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. It also was in line with a series of published findings that have emerged from Khurana’s work with the same data, which began while she was a postdoctoral fellow at the Annenberg Center.

In 2012, her group reported a positive association of working memory with sensation-seeking and a negative association with impulsivity. While children with sensation seeking engaged in exploratory forms of risk-taking, they were not getting stuck in unhealthy patterns of risk-taking.

Subsequently, the group has shown that weak working memory in combination with impulsivity can be used to predict trajectories of early alcohol use and risky sexual behavior in adolescents, and that adolescents with strong working memory are better equipped to escape early progression in drug use and avoid substance abuse issues.

Teens take risks, but that’s not a flaw of their brains

The research, Khurana says, speaks to the need for greater emphasis on early interventions that can strengthen cognitive control.

The National Institutes of Health funded the research. Additional coauthors are from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Source: University of Oregon

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Facebook’s controversial Messenger Kids app makes it easier for little BFFs to connect

Facebook’s Messenger Kids, the social media site’s controversial chat app for the under-13 set, finally made it easier for kids to friend one another on the app without requiring their parents to be Facebook friends, too.

That means parents don’t have to Facebook friend some paste-eater’s parents just because their kid knows all the answers to the math homework. Instead, kids can request parents’ approval of new contacts after the fact, no faux-friending required, TechCrunch reports. To use the feature, parents must opt-in to the setting. The app will then randomly create a four-word passphrase for each child. When the child wants to add a friend to their contact list, they share the phrase with the future friend to enter in their own app.

While the parents don’t have to be Facebook friends for the kids to connect, some parental involvement is still required—both parents receive a contact request from their child and both have to approve the request before the kids can start chatting.

However, this is even less parental involvement than an earlier tweak that required parents to search for the parents of their child’s friend and invite them to get the app so the kids can connect. Facebook must have realized that even that level of involvement was too much for parents who would literally rather clean the classroom chalkboard with their tongues than go to a PTA meeting, let alone connect with that mom who is always screaming on the sidelines of a soccer game.

This powerful new “face search” engine could be a privacy nightmare

Cybersecurity firm Trustwave has released an open source tool to find accounts of large volumes of people across social media platforms by automatically matching names and profile pictures.

The company says the tool, called Social Mapper, is designed for penetration testers who often phish employees at client companies to test security measures and gain access to computers. By showing how actual attackers can convince workers to give up their login credentials to scammers, testers can help companies put in training and technical countermeasures to make those attacks less feasible.

“The tool basically came out of necessity,” says Karl Sigler, threat intelligence manager at Trustwave. “Over the years we’ve discovered that a lot of the compromises and breaches that we get engaged in, in general the initial footprint, comes from a social engineering attack.”

Social Mapper users provide their own login credentials to various social networks, along with a file specifying names and facial images of the people they’re interested in targeting. The tool then logs into specified social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, VKontakte and Weibo and uses the sites’ search tools and open source facial recognition tools to find and log likely matches. Once they find matches, they can either friend the users on the social media sites and send them phishing links or use data from the sites to craft personalized phishing emails, Trustwave researcher Jacob Wilkins suggested in a blog post.

“Gathering all that information allows us to create very compelling spearphishing letters if you will,” says Sigler.

Trustwave has already used the tool in its penetration work to eliminate tedious manual social media research, according to the post.

“It’s really not that complex—we’re not using any API,” Sigler says. “Really, it’s just a matter of having an account on that social network and accessing publicly available data.”

Still, the tool has raised some concerns about whether it could be used for malicious purposes or to violate people’s privacy.

“A tool like this can enable somebody to surface information about social media users that those users do not expect to fall into the hands of a third party,” says Matt Cagle, a technology and civil liberties attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. “It’s really important that the people behind the tools think about the responsibility they have to make sure these tools are not ripe for misuse.”

Many social networks make profile information like names and profile photos visible by default, Cagle says. Facebook recently took some steps to limit automated scraping of accounts on the site by disabling a feature that let users search for potential friends by email address or phone number, after finding it was used to systematically gather public profile data on many of the service’s users. The company is contacting Trustwave about Social Mapper, a spokesperson said.

“We’re reaching out to the Social Mapper team to discuss their tool and reinforce the importance of compliance with our terms of service,” the spokesperson said in an email to Fast Company. “To be clear, use of automated tools to scrape content is against our policies aimed at keeping people on Facebook safe.”

LinkedIn, which has recently been involved in a legal battle with a company that scrapes data from its site, didn’t respond to an inquiry from Fast Company about Social Mapper.

Sigler says that many malicious hackers likely already have tools they can use to systematically scrape social media sites for phishing purposes, whether they use facial recognition software or just manually match facial images to other sources of data. Social Mapper doesn’t have access to any data that’s not already public, he says.

“It’s always a cat-and-mouse-type game—we’re trying to emulate the techniques we already see criminals using,” he says. “It’s nothing that hasn’t really already been done.”

Does the universal symbol for disability need to be rethought?

Two designers suggest turning the symbol into a reconfigurable library of icons.

Ninety-three percent of people with disabilities don’t use a wheelchair, even though the universal symbol that identifies this group is a person in a wheelchair. Liam Riddler, a creative at London’s McCann office, points to his brother, who suffers from Crohn’s disease–a condition that causes inflammation of the digestive tract, potentially causing pain, severe diarrhea, fatigue, weight loss, and malnutrition. It’s an invisible disability: Nobody would know about it by looking at him. Most people don’t understand why he may need to use accessible toilets or take advantage of priority seating.

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Panasonic keeps it fresh with shoe deodorizer

The MS-DS100 shoe deodorizer is designed to freshen up your footwear while you sleep

That unpleasant “cheesy” odor emanating from sneakers after a run is probably caused by bacteria on the wearer’s skin that feed on sweat and produce isovaleric acid, which is the smell culprit. You could try and mask the smell with inserts, use anti-bacterial soap on your feet or avoid using the same pair of running shoes too often, but Panasonic has another way – the MS-DS100 shoe deodorizer.

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Category: Around The Home

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Stretchy sensor keeps watch during brain aneurysm care

Researchers have developed a sensor that could improve the way brain aneurysm treatments are monitored.

Implantation of a stent-like flow diverter offers one option for less invasive treatment of brain aneurysms—bulges in blood vessels—but the procedure requires frequent monitoring while the vessels heal.

“The nanostructured sensor system could provide advantages for patients, including a less invasive aneurysm treatment and an active monitoring capability…”

Now, researchers have demonstrated proof-of-concept for a highly flexible and stretchable sensor that could be integrated with the flow diverter to monitor hemodynamics in a blood vessel without costly diagnostic procedures.

The sensor, which uses capacitance changes to measure blood flow, could reduce the need for testing to monitor the flow through the diverter. Researchers have shown that the sensor accurately measures fluid flow in animal blood vessels in vitro, and are working on the next challenge: wireless operation that could allow in vivo testing.

Tiny and flexible

“The nanostructured sensor system could provide advantages for patients, including a less invasive aneurysm treatment and an active monitoring capability,” says Woon-Hong Yeo, an assistant professor in biomedical engineering department at Georgia Tech and Emory University. “The integrated system could provide active monitoring of hemodynamics after surgery, allowing the doctor to follow up with quantitative measurement of how well the flow diverter is working in the treatment.”

aneurysm sensor (brain aneurysm concept)
With gloved fingers for scale, a proof-of-concept flow sensor is shown here on a stent backbone. (Credit: Woon-Hong Yeo/Georgia Tech)

Cerebral aneurysms occur in up to five percent of the population, with each aneurysm carrying a one percent risk per year of rupturing, notes Youngjae Chun, an associate professor in the Swanson School of Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh. Aneurysm rupture will cause death in up to half of affected patients.

Endovascular therapy using platinum coils to fill the aneurysm sac has become the standard of care for most aneurysms, but recently a new endovascular approach—a flow diverter—has been developed to treat cerebral aneurysms. Flow diversion involves placing a porous stent across the neck of an aneurysm to redirect flow away from the sac, generating local blood clots within the sac.

“We have developed a highly stretchable, hyper-elastic flow diverter using a highly-porous thin film nitinol,” Chun explains. “None of the existing flow diverters, however, provide quantitative, real-time monitoring of hemodynamics within the sac of cerebral aneurysm…. [We] have developed a smart flow-diverter system that can actively monitor the flow alterations during and after surgery.”

Rising to the challenge

Repairing the damaged artery takes months or even years, during which the flow diverter must be monitored using MRI and angiogram technology, which is costly and involves injection of a magnetic dye into the blood stream.

Yeo and his colleagues hope their sensor could provide simpler monitoring in a doctor’s office using a wireless inductive coil to send electromagnetic energy through the sensor. By measuring how the energy’s resonant frequency changes as it passes through the sensor, the system could measure blood flow changes into the sac.

“We are trying to develop a batteryless, wireless device that is extremely stretchable and flexible that can be miniaturized enough to be routed through the tiny and complex blood vessels of the brain and then deployed without damage,” says Yeo. “[It’s] very challenging to insert such [an] electronic system into the brain’s narrow and contoured blood vessels.”

“The sensor has to be completely compressed for placement, so it must be capable of stretching 300 or 400 percent…”

The sensor uses a micro-membrane made of two metal layers surrounding a dielectric material, and wraps around the flow diverter. The device is just a few hundred nanometers thick, and is produced using nanofabrication and material transfer printing techniques, encapsulated in a soft elastomeric material.

“The membrane is deflected by the flow through the diverter, and depending on the strength of the flow, the velocity difference, the amount of deflection changes,” Yeo explains. “We measure the amount of deflection based on the capacitance change, because the capacitance is inversely proportional to the distance between two metal layers.”

Because the brain’s blood vessels are so small, the flow diverters can be no more than five to ten millimeters long and a few millimeters in diameter. That rules out the use of conventional sensors with rigid and bulky electronic circuits.

“Putting functional materials and circuits into something that size is pretty much impossible right now,” Yeo says. “What we are doing is very challenging based on conventional materials and design strategies.”

Blood vessel ‘spaghetti’ makes mini-brain more real

The researchers tested three materials for their sensors: gold, magnesium, and the nickel-titanium alloy known as nitinol. All can be safely used in the body, but magnesium offers the potential to be dissolved into the bloodstream after it is no longer needed.

The proof-of-principle sensor was connected to a guide wire in the in vitro testing, but Yeo and his colleagues are now working on a wireless version that could be implanted in a living animal model. While implantable sensors are being used clinically to monitor abdominal blood vessels, application in the brain creates significant challenges.

“The sensor has to be completely compressed for placement, so it must be capable of stretching 300 or 400 percent,” says Yeo. “The sensor structure has to be able to endure that kind of handling while being conformable and bending to fit inside the blood vessel.”

Supercomputer tests ways to divert blood from aneurysm

The research appears in the journal ACS Nano. Georgia Tech’s Institute for Electronics and Nanotechnology, the University of Pittsburgh, and the Korea Institute of Materials Science supported the research.

Other researchers from Georgia Tech and the University of Pittsburgh, and from Virginia Commonwealth University; the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology; Chonnam National University; and Washington State University  contributed to the work.

Source: Georgia Tech

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Soft gripper handles sea creatures with kid gloves

A three-finger version of the soft gripper

If you’re trying to capture delicate deep-sea creatures such as sea slugs via camera-guided remote control, you’re certainly not going to use hard steel pincers designed for use in the oil and mining industries. It was with this in mind that a Harvard-led team recently developed an underwater robotic gripper that has a soft touch.

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Category: Robotics

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Watch Apple reveal the Newton’s wonders—mobile faxing!—in 1993

Twenty-five years ago this week, on the eve of the humongous Macworld Expo show in Boston, Apple formally announced the Newton. Officially known as the MessagePad 100, the pioneering “personal digital assistant” attracted lots of attention and inspired a cult following, but it failed to sell the masses on the idea of pocket-sized computers. When Steve Jobs returned in 1997, he killed the Newton, which had been the brainchild of his bête noire John Sculley. (Meanwhile, the original PalmPilot, introduced in 1996, had become the PDA category’s first breakout hit.)

In this video—apparently made around the time of the Newton’s release and designed to educate the dealers who’d sell Newtons to consumers—an avuncular host visits with three typical users of the handheld and discusses its features in dialog that’s stilted, even by the standards of 1990s corporate videos.

You need to try and think like a mid-’90s knowledge worker to understand what’s going on here. For instance, the scene with a guy standing at a payphone, cradling its receiver on his shoulder, and using both hands to wrangle his Newton is not a cautionary tale about cumbersome gadgetry. In 1993, that actually looked pretty convenient. And while the video does touch on tasks that people perform today with smartphones—note taking, calendar management—the showstopper is the Newton’s ability to send faxes, which required an optional dial-up modem.

Note also that our host stresses that you don’t need to be computer literate to use a Newton. Back then, there were still plenty of perfectly intelligent, successful people in the workforce who weren’t.

In 2012, I marked the 20th anniversary of Apple’s original 1992 pre-announcement of the Newton by trying to use one to do real work in the 21st century. For all the ways the MessagePad 100 had become an antique, the basic form factor was timeless enough that almost nobody noticed my mobile device dated back to the first Clinton administration.