Tuesday, June 9, 2009

What About the Animals?

Michael Anissimov is guest blogging this month.

In considering a possible transhumanist future where cybernetic implants and other enhancements must be designed for the use of billions of people, I worry about an associated slaughter -- that of all the animals that must be used as test subjects for the enhancements before they can be made to work. Considering that some modifications will surely involve replacing the limbs, organs, and just about every part of the body, and always be accompanied by the risk of immune rejection, it seems heartless to subject millions of test animals to excruciating death by torture.

This aspect of technological progress is almost never discussed by transhumanists, yet it is so important.

The situation gets even worse with the application of robotics. To meet the increased demand for the design and testing of implantable devices, what if vivariums (animal testing facilities) are greatly expanded and automated? That could make them even worse than they already are -- tiny sterile cages in overlit rooms with bleach-white walls. Today, just as many "environmentally conscious" people happily (but at comfortable removal) subject intelligent animals like pigs to inhumane treatment in the world's factory farms, "nice people" in the future will have no compunctions to condemning millions of animals to death by torture if it will help the next cybernetic implant get designed. Why?

In advocating for transhumanism, is one in fact also inadvertently advocating for the mass mutilation of innocent and defenseless animals, who belong out in the field, not in the laboratory torture chamber, where they never see the light of day?

To a certain degree, yes.

Is there another way? Thankfully so. In discussing this issue with George, he pointed me to a Times Online article titled, "Animal experiments could end in a generation". This is some of the best news I have ever heard. My father, who works at Genentech, tells me all about how vivariums for major biotech companies are often in out-of-the-way neighborhoods with a complete absence of signs identifying the owner or purpose. If what they are doing is ethical, then why do they have to hide it so conspicuously? From the Times article:

The use of animal experiments could be replaced by research on “virtual human beings” and tests on banks of living cells within a generation, scientists say.

Computer modelling and advances in cell biology will allow researchers to assess new drugs far more precisely and without the involvement of animals. One innovation is the development of “micro-lungs” — lung cells extracted from transplant tissue, grown in a laboratory culture and then tested with drops of toxicants such as cosmetics to assess the response.

Can you imagine that, for many decades, the standard practice has been to administer toxicants directly to the lungs of test animals such as rabbits and rats? Although these animals may be dumber than humans, they clearly can feel pain, and much of the physiology in the brains of rabbits and rats is similar to human brains. It seems extremely likely to me that they have conscious experiences. We will have an opportunity to learn more about this when we can create brains at will and combine primitive brains with more advanced knowledge sets or intelligent agents that can reflect on the details of their mental experience.

Michael's blog: Accelerating Future.

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