Around the World in Six Ideas

Article excerpt

Byline: Christopher Dickey

Rights for Robots?

Many sci-fi films have raised the question of whether robots, in some distant future, will have rights. But Kate Darling at MIT thinks the question is current already. She argues that robots like Pleo the Dinosaur become companions much like pets, and that when people relate to them, they want to protect them. In one recent "robot ethics" workshop she conducted, none of four groups could kill their Pleo. Of course, it's really more about us than them. "If we can see the emotions that we know in ourselves in the other object--or being--that is when we start to feel protective," Darling says. Even when it comes to a living animal's rights, she notes, "the cuter it is, the more it stimulates emotions." The quintessential example so far is Paro, a white, furry $5,000 robot baby seal used for hospital therapy. (Yes, it looks just like the ones that hunters in Canada bludgeon to death, to the horror of animal-rights groups.) Dementia patients find Paro's purring as soothing as a live animal's. No one would want to see it mistreated. "Over the next decade, we're going to see a lot more toys like that," says Darling.

The Economics of Love

Valentine's Day came and went without a major impact on economic policy. But it got Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers thinking. After examining the data in a Gallup survey of 136 countries, which asked respondents, "Did you experience love for a lot of the day yesterday?" they posted a brief essay on a Brookings Institution blog. (Wolfers is a senior fellow there.) "Love is valuable, even if it is absent from both our national accounts and our political discourse," they wrote. "In the language of economics, love is a form of insurance." It provides both a psychological sense of security and real material security. "This is why the household remains one of the most powerful institutions for organizing not just families but also our economic lives." (The authors were not arguing for gay marriage, but you can see how the logic would apply.) "When you expand the boundaries of trust and reciprocity," say Stevenson and Wolfers, "you expand the boundaries of what is possible." In case you were wondering, the people of the Philippines and Rwanda (interestingly) are at the top of the much-loved list; the United States ranks 26; France is 57; Israel is 88; and at the very bottom, Armenia.

America to the Rescue

Two scholars writing for the Council on Foreign Relations argue that the United States should have specialized combat units ready to stop genocide and other atrocities. One example, according to authors Stewart Patrick and Micah Zenko: "The Army's 82nd Airborne-Ready Brigade can deploy as many as 3,600 troops anywhere in the world within eighteen hours notice." But as the paper notes, "military officials demonstrate little enthusiasm" for this idea. After the shock of genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s, many politicians vowed never again. But given the sad saga in Iraq, the problematic outcome in Libya, the Syrian charnel house, and the uncertainties that lie ahead in Mali, it's hard to get soldiers excited about the right to protect (R2P in NGO jargon). So an estimated 250,000 people continue to die in armed conflicts every year, and the World Bank puts the economic costs at "upwards of $100 billion." Much more needs to be done at the international level, say Patrick and Zenko, but they also want the Obama administration "to provide specific guidance to the military in its National Security Strategy to plan and train its rapidly deployable forces for genocide- and mass-atrocity-prevention missions."

Printing with Stem Cells

When a group of researchers in Scotland published a paper recently showing how they used a special two-nozzle computer printer filled with "bio-ink" to make 3-D objects out of human-embryo stem cells, speculation ran wild that they may soon be printing whole human organs. …