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Ethics assignment for my nanotech class related to detection of viruses

Posted by $ jbrenner 6 months, 2 weeks ago to Philosophy
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Several of you have asked how I incorporate the proper philosophy into my nanotech minor. When you read this entire message, you will see that I encourage them to establish their own metaphysics, epistemology, and conditions/constraints that they will work under.

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Nanotechnology Ethics Exercise
Florida Institute of Technology
CHE/CHM 1091 - Nanotechnology Lab 1 class

Read this entire document before answering any questions. You will be asked to write your answers to the following by 4/27/2020 at 6 PM. At that time, we will discuss your responses. Constructive criticism will be encouraged during our Zoom meeting.

Charles Lieber, the recently deposed head of the Department of Chemistry at Harvard University, is one of the most acclaimed nanotechnologists in world history. He wrote many successful proposals to the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Department of Defense (DOD). Expectations of those funding agencies include publishing findings in prestigious journals and presentations at conferences. Since these funding agencies distribute government-collected tax dollars, the government expects to be a partner in any intellectual property (IP) that may be developed.

Prof. Lieber pioneered the field of nanowires and, as part of that, developed a nanowire sensor array for detection of a range of pathogens at around the time of the SARS virus outbreak. To develop that technology, Lieber signed a DOD document that stated that he would protect both intellectual and physical property developed as part of his group's work from being used by enemies of the United States of America against us.

It is standard practice for professors to hire students and postdocs from all over the world to carry out their research work. While DOD funding and some NSF and NIH funding require that funding be only spent on U.S. citizens, most professors obtain money from government agencies and/or private entities to fund some non-U.S. members of their research groups.

Several years ago, the Chinese government offered Prof. Lieber and several other prominent nanotechnology researchers an offer to become members of the Thousand Talents Program, with much higher base salaries and other compensation as well as no need to apply for future research funding. Lieber took that offer without notifying Harvard or the U.S. government. As part of the deal, Lieber was put in charge of a research institute within the Wuhan Institute of Technology. This was the first and only institute in China designed to handle viruses as virulent as COVID-19, SARS, Ebola, etc. Without making any judgment on Prof. Lieber personally or whether the release of COVID-19 was accidental or intentional, I refer you to the following:

https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/harvar...

1) Metaphysics refers to one's view of reality. How do you define "reality"? What is your view of reality? How do you define "facts"? What is your view of "facts"? Are those views dependent on or independent of your feelings, wishes, hopes, and/or fears?

2) Epistemology refers to "How, or on what basis, do you know what you know?". What do you, in fact, know, and how do you know it? What assumptions, if any, are you making in coming to such conclusions?

3) If either Prof. Lieber and/or one or more of his former students and/or postdocs wanted to start a company based off of the nanowire sensor array detection of pathogen technology, what constraints would such a company operate under a) if they were privately funded and purchased the IP from Harvard and the U.S. government; and separately b), if they went to China or some other country to start such a company?

4) What conditions and/or constraints are you willing to agree to in order to pursue a) research and training under a mentor; b) working for a for-profit company; and c) start a company as a founder or co-founder. Realize that you will probably will not be able to afford some of your goals without any funding at any point whatsoever.

5) What conditions and/or constraints are you NOT willing to agree to in order to pursue a) research and training under a mentor; b) working for a for-profit company; and c) start a company as a founder or co-founder.

6) The previous questions have helped you establish your ethics/morality. Summarize your views on laws and government. Consider how different local, state, national, and international government and non-governmental entities (such as the World Health Organization) have attempted to control the behavior of individuals and businesses during the COVID-19 outbreak. What opportunities did the COVID-19 outbreak generate, and what opportunities have been lost as a result of the outbreak? How does one take advantage of the new opportunities?

7) It is entirely likely that the COVID-19 outbreak started from a building that Prof. Lieber was the director of, whether it was unintentional or not. Put yourself in Lieber's position at various stages of his career, and delineate what you would have done to achieve your career goals and convert your ideas into a viable product.

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FYI: Like all universities and companies right now, the overreaction to the coronavirus has hit my university, Florida Tech (nee the Patrick Henry University?), quite hard. I do not want your alms, but knowing that you are thinking of us as I am molding future Galts, D'Anconia's, etc. will help keep my spirits up.


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  • Posted by Mamaemma 6 months, 2 weeks ago
    Incredible assignment. I am impressed with the assignment and any student who completes it! I am also impressed that you are spreading Objectivism, not just talking about it
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  • Posted by $ MikeMarotta 6 months, 2 weeks ago
    Thanks for your hard work. I am interested in the responses, of course. Your own answers would also be informative here.
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    • Posted by $ 6 months, 2 weeks ago
      Thank you, MikeMarotta.

      From an invention standpoint, I have a group of students with whom I am forming a company. We have constructed a disinfection robot and need to finish a sterilizer box to make sure the robot doesn't cross-contaminate.

      As for some of the questions, I went to the Atlas Society web site to get some ideas, but I worded everything independently of any particular philosophical direction because I want the students to come to their philosophy on their own.

      The one area that I think I differ on these issues from Objectivist philosophy is with regard to question 1. The definition of a fact and the definition of reality are somewhat different. There may be an objective reality right now, but as an inventor, part of what I do is to create a new, better reality based partly on my own wishes and wants. I realize that I haven't necessarily created that "reality" yet, but I know how I want to proceed to get there.

      The present is fixed and thus objective, but the future is not fixed.
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      • Posted by $ MikeMarotta 6 months, 2 weeks ago
        You are doing good work in teaching ethics to engineering students. It is your call on how you want to teach metaphysics or how much of it is relevant to the ethical problems your students are working with.

        Allow me to suggest that in discussing "reality" you are using technical terms in vernacular ways. I could agree in common chat that reality is always changing. You cannot step in the same river twice. But that conflates the meanings of a loosely defined common word and its technical meaning in philosophy. Your misuse is similar to the way people commonly confuse mass and weight or speed and velocity. The same is true of your use of "objective."

        Even in philosophy, among Objectivists being technically precise in their discussion, the word "objective" can refer to that which is external to you (metaphysics) and that which is proper to your nature (morality).

        Another two words that are confused are "objective" and "absolute."

        My understanding of Objectivist metaphysics is that past, present, and future, are attributes of reality. Time exists in the universe the way oxygen exists in water. The universe does not exist in time, the way a fish exists in water.

        I reviewed this book, 4Es: Ethics, Engineering, Economics & Environment, for my blog. I met the author via email when his editor pointed him to a work of mine (on numismatics) that he cited.
        https://necessaryfacts.blogspot.com/2...
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        • Posted by $ 6 months, 2 weeks ago
          Your point is well taken regarding the philosphical definitions of the words reality and objective. To summarize my point, because the future is not written yet, reality can define constraints, but it is not truly "defined". If one's future were truly defined, would we not believe (and I use that term pejoratively in this case) in predestination?
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        • Posted by $ 6 months, 2 weeks ago
          Who downvoted this? I found value in these comments and upvoted them. The blurring of the strict philosophical definitions and the vernacular definitions is indeed a problem.
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          • Posted by $ blarman 6 months, 2 weeks ago
            Define reality. Talk about your metaphysical quandary... ;)

            I think part of it is revolves around the audience for the comments. 99.999% of people don't think of things metaphysically and even the word "metaphysical" will do nothing more than raise confused eyebrows. Thus one must think about the audience for whom the words are intended. For undergraduate engineering students, I think jbrenner's instructions are perfect. (Obviously if this were for philosophy students the questions might be structured differently so as to take advantage of a more precise set of definitions.)

            The point is to get them thinking about the implications of their scientific discoveries and the morality of their use. This is obviously something being lost on the scientists intentionally trying to create pathogens like COVID-19.
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            • Posted by $ 6 months, 2 weeks ago
              I am not going to accuse anyone of trying to engineer COVID-19 or maliciously spread it, unless there is evidence that comes later that I do not know about yet.

              That being said, the ethical debate of how to proceed in this area is worth having. Someone has to come up with a way to protect us from pandemics, or else there is no point in starting companies based on an expectation of profitability. Without protection from pandemics, fear will dominate, and society will not be capable of the long term investments necessary for true progress.

              Ayn Rand captured this in Atlas Shrugged when she discussed how the inventor would be the last type of person to appear in an honorable society, and the first to disappear when that society turns communist.
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              • Posted by $ blarman 6 months, 2 weeks ago
                "That being said, the ethical debate of how to proceed in this area is worth having."

                Absolutely. Every job has an ethical component to it. The nature of the component may be more or less problematic but is key to how one does business and with what kid of clientele.

                For example, my father-in-law is a software programmer and has been since before that position even really existed. He was offered a very lucrative project working on randomizing algorithms for card shufflers in Las Vegas. As he was personally opposed to gambling on moral grounds, he chose to forego the offer.

                In a similar vein, the United States has had many manufacturers and companies who have been willing to ignore China's egregious behaviors in order to make a buck. This current crisis may force many of them to re-think their approach and ask if their short-term profit-seeking is worth a long-term dependence on a hostile nation.
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                • Posted by $ MikeMarotta 6 months, 2 weeks ago
                  Well, in the first place, it matters whether you are dealing with the government or an individual.

                  Then, you have to decide where your true self-interest is. Consider IBM selling tabulating equipment to the government of Germany in the 1930s versus someone here buying an optical component from Carl Zeiss.

                  See jbrenner's comment on this, also.
                  https://www.galtsgulchonline.com/post...
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                  • Posted by $ blarman 6 months, 2 weeks ago
                    "it matters whether you are dealing with the government or an individual."

                    I agree. What should also be taken into account there is how much influence the government has on said individual.

                    That's why I contend that there is no such thing as a "private" market in China at this time. When a government can tell a research professor to destroy research and stop talking to anyone regarding a matter, that individual doesn't really own themself or the products of their mind...
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                    • Posted by $ 6 months, 2 weeks ago
                      There have been times and subjects that have led to lack of discussion even in America. Are we nearing or in such a time?
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                      • Posted by $ blarman 6 months, 2 weeks ago
                        You are closer to it than many of us, but I share your concern.

                        I certainly hope it never comes to a State Science Institute here in the United States, but I think that will largely depend on the choices made in the next few years and whether or not a global economic downturn forces nations into making some stark decisions...
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                • Posted by $ 6 months, 2 weeks ago
                  The subject of China in particular is an interesting one. I often buy new products on EBay from China with which to construct my latest prototype. The individuals I deal with seem to be honorable capitalists, but they work under a Communist dictatorship that dishonors IP. One big question that this prompts is when an item becomes a commodity instead of. a value-added product.

                  Do you evaluate the individual, his/her country, or both, and if you can separate them, how do you disentangle them?
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                  • Posted by $ blarman 6 months, 2 weeks ago
                    It is indeed a difficult question. I guess it comes down to a set of given fundamental evaluations. If the government controls the output and profits thereby, are you really dealing with a private corporate entity or are you dealing with a State by proxy? If you are in fact dealing with a State by proxy, are you enabling that State to pursue ends destructive to yourself by doing business with them? There's certainly a lot to consider.
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                    • Posted by $ 6 months, 2 weeks ago
                      This is a thorny issue I have long considered. In order to achieve my invention objectives, can I afford to only buy parts from dealers that I can completely trust? Do I even have time to check on that?
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  • Posted by jimslag 6 months, 2 weeks ago
    Many comments about manufacturing and China with it's egregious behavior. Being retired military, I dealt with this a lot while I was in the military. The military establishment was very concerned with certain aspects of manufacturing being farmed out an how that would affect supply lines during a time frame of war or circumstances like we now have. This was strictly in a National defense aspect of the issue. I think with this we are seeing some (not all) companies rethink where their supply lines come from. Now mind you, I retired from the military in 2001 an we were thinking of this back then. We have now gone almost 2 decades past that time and it has gotten a lot worse than it was in 2000. Have we gone to far with the issue? or not far enough.

    I always appreciate Professor Brenner bringing up interesting topics and he did NOT miss here. As always, Kudo's to the Professor in activating those brain cells. He did it to me in the past and I think he has done it again.
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    • Posted by $ 6 months, 2 weeks ago
      The interdependence we have on products from other countries was meant to protect us from getting into needless wars, and largely that has worked.

      Now, however, the type of battlefield is changing.
      Lessons from Sun Tzu's The Art of War are always instructive.
      "In the midst of chaos, there is always opportunity."
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  • Posted by Owlsrayne 6 months, 2 weeks ago
    Excellent assignment for engineering students. Reading those questions gave me pause to reflect on them. I had to switch gears to put them in an Atlas Shrugged POV. The word Metaphysical almost stopped me in my tracks or I should say threw me off the track.
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  • Posted by mccannon01 6 months, 2 weeks ago
    I'm very curious about this subject and will keep coming back here to catch up on current discussion. It looks to me like Prof. Lieber was using his position for chasing the money or using whatever means possible to meet his personal research goals, since he's so important, or both. He certainly didn't seem to give a damn about any possible consequences. Regardless of his motives, he was "double dipping" from Uncle Sam and the Chinese government at the same time and it seems Uncle Sam was getting screwed as usual.

    The Chinese actors in this are simply spies and thieves doing what spies and thieves do. You'd think someone as smart as the professor would suspect something was afoot - of course he may not have cared a whit with all that loot and accolades flowing in his direction.

    Just wondering, is it common to have 29 and 30 year old foreign "students" hanging around colleges doing this type of research? I would expect by that age they'd be doing something else and younger students would be helping out the professor.
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  • Posted by $ puzzlelady 6 months, 2 weeks ago
    I challenge each of you to write your answers to these 7 questions. You have until April 27, 2020.

    I am stuck in Florida for the unforeseeable future. Too bad about "distancing", Prof. Brenner, or I'd take you out to dinner. Great work, bravo.
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    • Posted by $ 6 months, 2 weeks ago
      Welcome to paradise (i.e. Florida), puzzlelady. Well at least some of it is paradise. I live in Suntree, just north of Melbourne. Occasionally we have Gulch meet-ups in my county.

      I am considering opening my class up to the entire Honors College at my university that night (4/27). I am also considering inviting you. Before I do that, I definitely need to ask the students for their permission.
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      • Posted by $ puzzlelady 6 months, 2 weeks ago
        Thanks. I'm in North Miami Beach, cozy and comfy. I assume if I'm invited, it's a virtual meeting, not a costume party with masks. I know where Melbourne is, having appeared in art shows in that area. These days I am available 20 hours a day digitally. I attend Zoom events, but invisibly (no camera). Would you like me to write up my answers to your quiz as well?
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        • Posted by $ 6 months, 2 weeks ago
          Yes, the meeting would be in Zoom chat room. Anyone can write their answers. This isn't for a grade, but consider it part of John Galt's month-long summer continuing education program. It does feel like summer here in Florida already.
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  • Posted by $ blarman 6 months, 2 weeks ago
    That is a fantastic assignment. It brings to the forefront that classic line from Jurassic Park "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should." Or if you really want to go to the Spider-Man quote "With great power comes great responsibility."
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  • Posted by $ Olduglycarl 6 months, 2 weeks ago
    Hmm, committing a moral wrong to attain an ethical good. There is something to be said of Ethical Morality but there is not enough said about that cornerstone of behavior when it comes to one's life's work, when it comes to that drive to succeed and the resulting temptations in order to create a new reality.
    After all choosing good over evil and right over wrong is all about the minds control over the temptations of the brain.

    I get it, I've been there, it's not easy when one's mind is so preoccupied that it allows one's brain to take the reigns in order to accomplish one's goals.
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