Questions to ponder on Dia de los Muertos

  1. How/Should we celebrate the dead?
  2. What rights do you have to claim over your own dead body?
  3. Does the current funeral/body disposal service in America cost too much, too little, or just about the right amount?
  4. How Americans interact with their dead has changed drastically over the course of the past century. Rarely are dead relatives displayed at ones home as a family mourns. More people are opting for cremation and dying in hospitals, meaning that for some families, loved ones go into a hospital only to be seen again as ash. Is this progress in the processes of death?
  5. The dead surround us. Buried into hill sides or vaporized into some carbon wafted in our nose, quite literally what were once about 100 billion other human beings now infuse our environment. Does this require us to treat our environment differently as it grows ever denser with dearly departed?
  6. Will the dead ever walk among us?
  7. Is our modern declaration of “brain death” necessary and/or sufficient to demarcate “the living” and “the dead”? 
  8. Hirschkind (2008) notes, “Preachers mine a vast archive of eschatological imagery — the horrors that occur in the grave (ayzeb al-qabr), the terrifying encounter with the angel of death (Azra’il), the exuberant sensuality that awaits the pious in heaven — reworking this stock of highly visual narratives to both astound their audiences and enliven their moral affects.” On average, does the inclusion of “fire and brimstone” rhetoric in discussions of morality and ethics benefit participants? Put differently, are more souls likely to “go to Heaven” if they know they are “held over Hell”?
  9. In what way(s) is a fixation with death beneficial/harmful to a society/culture and/or its neighbors.
  10. Dia de los Muertos refers to a set of Roman Catholic holy days celebrated in Mexico corresponding to All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. Usually the “Day of the Dead” (also, el Día de Animas, el Día de los Finados, and el Día de los Fieles Difuntos) is reserved for All Souls’ Day, with All Saints’ Day being celebrated on its eve. Why/Should we have two days to celebrate our dearly departed: one for the best of us and one for the rest of us? 
  11. The history of the United States and Mexico over the development of America has been one of contact, conflict, exchange, and continuous influence. A modern incarnation of this “same old story” is the influx of immigrants from “south of the border” affecting United States healthcare policy. How/Should/Could undocumented immigrants and/or non-citizens of the United States be given healthcare if they lack the means to pay it? 
  12. How/Should/Could citizens of the United States be given healthcare as a right?
  13. If you were a ghost, what would you do with your time?
  14. How/Should we fear death?
  15. Do we die the right way these days? Have we in the past? Will we in the future?
  16. How many more Americans will die by this pandemic?

On the swearing in of the first Space Force recruits

This day is both greater and hollower than it ought to be. Like a balloon blown with stale breath.

The first Americans to directly enlist in the Space Force, an actual branch of the United States Uniformed Services, were sworn in live on national television as part of a morning cable show. Four masked individuals and two uniformed officers were asked to state their name, promise to support and defend against American enemies, and “obey the orders of the president”. 

An officer was asked what the future of the Force was to which he responded that the evolution of military action via technological progress has led to the need for such a branch of our military. One of the four first recruits noted that being able “to maintain and protect satellites that are vulnerable to attack” attracted him to enlist. Another officer noted that these recruits are “the first of the pure bred” Space Force personnel.

Contributing most to the hollowness for me? More than the rushed morning show produced spectacle? One of the officers, saying why it was important for the United States to defend against these threats, invoked the phrase “that blue dot” – which echoes that beautiful metaphor of Carl Sagan, “the pale blue dot” – to refer to a few pixels on your cellphone representing your location on this earth, here and now. Just then and over there a few people joined a nascent branch of our military twenty minutes before the president was set to be interviewed by his favorite television program. Will he be asked? Will it rise to the poetry of a mote of dust in a sun beam? Or will this balloon be filled with ever staler air?

Where shall we go from here?


Memory of a forgotten future

I write this sitting on the steps of The Big House, near the Northeast entrance of Crisler Center.

Three flags hang on three poles: the United States, Michigan, and the University.

History was meant to bring the three together tonight not too far from where I sit.

The site of the original second presidential debate – before it was canceled, before it was moved, before COVID – was here, now.

This place, this moment.

A person (or set of persons) doing stomp percussion in a building in the distance.

A periodic runner hustles by.

I wear a mask.

Now, the Michigan flag blows with the wind.

Now, it hangs limp with the others.

If I do not say much here, it is because there is not much to say. Things were supposed to go one way. They went another. History cannot be planned. Only witnessed.

I bear witness to the silence in this place on this night. The lines of the flags rustling against their poles. Thirty second bursts of percussive improvisation. The hum of distant HVAC systems. Buses braking, accelerating, kneeling at vacant stops. Lights are on, streetlights at least. The inside of Crisler is dark, empty.

Even the air feels absent. Sitting at that autumnal temperature of neutral heat transfer, equilibrium, balance. Without the occasional chilled gust I might not know I was anywhere at all.

History might not either. It doesn’t/can’t see all. Even we who bear witness report only this much.

How much else is hidden in memories of forgotten futures?


A warped campus

This year we see many things “through the looking glass”. And though this can warp our perspective, it can also expand our view. This semester, those of us on campus get to see the University of Michigan in a way it hasn’t been seen in two hundred years of operation. It is beautiful. It is tragic.

It is a place warped by a moment.


Questions to ponder on artificial parts

  1. When the human race encounters its first honest-to-goodness “alien” lifeform, do you think it will be of an “artificial” or “organic”/”natural” composition?
  2. If a prosthetic is harmed, is it a form of property damage or a personal injury? For example, imagine an individual with a prosthetic limb is in a car accident in which the prosthetic is damaged, should compensation for this “loss of limb” be for property restitution or injury coverage?
  3. There will always be medical device malfunctions, defects, imperfections, scenarios unplanned for. What is an appropriate rate of harm for medical devices in general? What about those replacing a limb or a function? What about implanted devices?
  4. In The Tin Man of Oz, we are told that the Wicked Witch of the East enchants Nick Chopper’s axe so that it lops of parts of his body to prevent him from marrying Nimmie. A tinsmith replaces each lost part with tin until he is all tin – a Tin Man! Not content with just this wickedness, The Wicked Witch assembled each of Nick’s severed parts into a whole man, named Chopfyt, who Nimmie has wed. Did Nick marry Nimmie?
  5. Imagine a neural prosthetic has been implanted into your brain that helps to transcode your short-term memories into your long-term memories. This implant that you neither see nor feel sends a pattern of electrical shocks to your hippocampus without you knowing when or how. After a while you notice your memory has improved, recalling more information with greater ease. Has this implant changed “you”? Is this implant now part of “you”? If it were removed…?
  6. An internal alarm for an implanted medical device with an individual manufacturer starts to go off. It is not loud but can be heard within a few feet. It makes a short chirp every 33 minutes. It continues to sound for two years.
    1. It requires an invasive procedure which your insurance does not cover and which you cannot afford.
    2. The company who manufactured it went out of business a couple years back.
    3. As it is not a “life-threatening” malfunction, the company that acquired the company that developed the original device claims no liability and will not cover repair or replacement. What is to be done?
  7. Some forms of deafness – a lack of hearing – can be augmented/treated/aided by cochlear implants. Critics of childhood implantation say members of the deaf community have their own language and culture and that to implant devices in children would diminish an already minority culture. Who should make the decisions involved in these implants and how should they make them?
  8. Would humans who come “to term” within artificial womb-like environments without being birthed through typical – “natural” – means be any “different” from “normal” humans? What would it mean to be “born” from such an environment?
  9. To make the preceding question a little more difficult, when would a human’s life begin within such an “artificial” environment? Would/Should restrictions/regulations of abortion procedures be any different in “natural” and “artificial” cases?
  10. Would you willingly get a prosthetic? What would you make of those who would?

Questions to ponder on artificial intelligence

  1. Unfortunately, naturally race enters into the discussion. Whether it is Bay Area nerds coding up healthcare infrastructure or that nurse adding a little something extra about that patient who was being just a bit too snooty for their liking, implicit and explicit biases enter our systems. What is at least one effective way to root some of it out of a system?
  2. Class and economic inequity often enter into this sorts of discussions with the implication that since The Rich are so rich they will have access to the latest and greatest in healthcare and therefore that is what will give them yet another advantage in this life and that is why they will outlive us, The Meek & Mild Discussers of Bioethics. I contend there is scant evidence to suggest that the latest and greatest in most medical enterprises does anything to help those quite literally on the bleeding edge. How will artificial intelligence in medicine help the rich and can we ensure it will also help the not-rich too?
  3. A black box is presented to you. You are told it has exceedingly intelligent insides, which you cannot see. The box says you have a 48% chance of catastrophe. How do you respond?
  4. Can you torture a computer?
  5. Does the rate at which a theoretical artificial intelligence operate warp the ethical calculus we must program into it? Put differently, how ought we human beings program computers to act ethically that operate at thousands to billions to trillions of times faster than any human being or group of human beings ever could hope to if they each lived a hundred lifetimes. Put succinctly, how do we consider ethics at different time scales?
  6. Among the regulatory considerations of a practical implementation of medical artificial intelligence include contextual biases, data import/integrity/privacy/security, explanation of information “learned” from data obtained, exportation of information to “others”, sampling skews, training set biases, trade secrets, and the uncertainty of the American healthcare system (mostly from Minssen et al. 2020). Of these, which do you think poses the greatest practical ethical hurdle and why?
  7. What makes something “artificial”? Is it the same in every case as “man made”? What respect do humans have to things which are artificial that are not human made?
  8. By what mean(s) can a non-artificial intelligence determine an “artificial intelligence”?
  9. In what topsy turvy world could an “artificial intelligence” be held culpable for a crime? Would an A.I.’s “programmers”/”creators” take the responsibility? When/Could such designers be relieved of that responsibility?
  10. When the human race encounters its first honest-to-goodness “alien” lifeform, do you think it will be of an “artificial” or “organic”/”natural” composition?
  11. Do moral actions require conscious creatures?
  12. Is there any way to unhitch the wagon of “artificial intelligence” from advertising or are we destined to see ever more personalized ads that seem targeted at our ever more personalized problems/desires/hopes/plans?
  13. Follow on, is there a “good” pharmaceutical advertisement?
  14. Just between us, now that you’re scanning this far down in the question sheet, how much of this artificial intelligence stuff do you think is just the new “hocus pocus”, the new “snake oil”, the new “set and forget” solution to all your life’s problems? How much of it do you think will end up living up to the hype?
  15. To what degree of granularity should the sewage company be able to tell – via new and improved artificial intelligence-enhanced “surveillance testing” methods – what the neighborhood has been eating?

Questions to ponder on the Theory of Mind

  1. How do you determine the presence of minds in others?
  2. How comfortable are you with the notion that there exist people fully as capable of thoughtful reflection on the world as you (perhaps some even better) and yet come to completely different conclusions? How do you negotiate disagreement with others?
  3. What is it like to be a bat?
  4. If you could be transported instantaneously to a world where other people’s thoughts in your local vicinity were revealed to you but yours were as also revealed to them, would you want to go there? Do you think those who were born into such a world would wish to come to ours where thoughts are kept quietly within skulls?
  5. Can one lie in their sleep?
  6. Why do you think people believe “weird” things? What “weird” things do you believe?
  7. Why do you think so much early/foundational research on the Theory of Mind was spent on “false belief” studies?
  8. For human beings does “life” “end” with the end of “the mind”. Does it begin there as well? Is this the same criteria we ought to apply to those things we believe have minds?
  9. Is there a baseline level of respect owe to the integrity for things which do (not) have minds?
  10. “Think about it,” David Foster Wallace bids us, “there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.” Is this the “default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth” for all mind-having-beings or is it the conditioned response of a single subset of a single species of primate?
  11. Do we mind-having creatures tend to over-attribute or under-attribute mental states to others? Why/Is it important to understand (the mental states of) others?
  12. Do human beings of today have the same “minds” as human beings of way back when? What about the minds of human beings of the way off when?
  13. When you “change your mind”, what happens?
  14. How often should we change our mind? When/Should we change it more/less?
  15. Will we make it to the next…?

Questions from the community!

  1. Do humans deserve consciousness? Is consciousness a burden? Have we wasted it?
  2. Do you believe in the ‘collective mind(s)?’ If my mind is the conduit through which I experience the universe, is it influenced at all by the mere existence or presence of others (ignoring the direct ways humans influence each other, e.g. talking)? If you think the collective mind(s) exist, is it bounded at a particular level (e.g. your immediate physical proximity, the community, the nation, the human species)? If you don’t believe in the collective mind(s), why do you think we prefer holding bioethics discussions in person sitting far away from each other, instead of through (convenient?) internet services?
  3. Why do certain cultures fear death, while others celebrate it? How does the culture we grow up in and its attitudes towards death affect our psyches and how we live our day to day lives?
  4. What can we do to broaden our perspectives on controversial topics-how can we learn from one another to improve our understanding of our place as engineers?
  5. Will a utilitarian approach to public policy be different if decision makers have a direct access to the subjective experience of pain and pleasure of others? In other words, should the utilitarian weight emphasize the subjective or objective aspect of pain and pleasure?
  6. How much of the way we think and the actions we take are dictated by the media and other pop culture influences?
  7. Can you ever really know what another person is observing and how they interpret those observations without a shared experience? Even then, without an equivocal genetic makeup and dietary intake, would you ever truly be able to ‘hop in someone else’s shoes.’ Is true empathy therefore unreachable?
  8. How does one reconcile the idea that our own perceptions of self differ from others’ perceptions of us? Does our perception of self matter if we aren’t able to effectively communicate it to others? Can someone ever be truly understood outside of their own mind?
  9. Does anyone really truly understand another person or creature? Could they really know the complexities of all the thoughts present in their mind? If one cannot even understand the complexities of their own mind, then how would one understand someone else?
  10. Though there are compelling reason to consider changing the definition of the death when applied to a human person, what meaningful consequence would there be for such a change? The purpose of our current definition of death is so it to be applied across all life forms as a generality. When someone says that their dog died, there is a common understanding that what happened is that same as if someone says their parent died. It’s almost deceitful to change the definition because if commonly accepted it does not make our speech more precise it actually detracts from our speech and makes it more uncertain about what death happened. It would also further stratify our raking of biological life. People would then start arguing that dogs and cats have this higher death, monkeys and dolphins. Who are we to determine what can experience a death of personhood? Furthermore we are talking about a situation which no one has inherently come back from. Although the idea of person may be gone who is to say that the body does not continue to feel hunger, thirst, heat, cold. Regardless of what, I think that even a single  response constitutes life because it feels beyond human judgement to determine a unique form of death for humans. I think the reason we think about brain death as death is because we consider it equivalent to death for ourselves who cannot accept the idea we are alive without an ego, that we encompass a body and mind. I think we can be alive without either a body or mind. Find the question in that.
  11. What contributes to our “mind” beyond what’s inside our skull (digestive system, perhaps?)?