Monday, October 30, 2023

The Advent of Digital Twins: Should They Replace Caregivers?


It's 2027, and your father is in a rest home suffering from Alzheimer's disease.  You are considering a new service that takes samples of your voice and videoclips of you, and creates a highly realistic 3-D "digital twin" that your father can talk with on a screen any time he wants to.  The digital twin has your voice and mannerisms, and shows up on your father's phone to remind him to take his medicine and furnish what the company offering the service calls "companionship."  In the meantime, you yourself can simply go about your own life without having to do the largely tedious work of getting your father to take care of himself. 


Should you go ahead and pay for this service?  Or should you just continue with your daily visits to him, visits that are becoming increasingly inconvenient?


I put this scenario a few years in the future, but already academics are considering the ethical implications of using digital twins in healthcare.  Matthias Braun, an ethicist at the Friedrich-Alexander University in Germany, thinks that the answer to this question depends on the issue of how much control the original of the twin exerts over it.  Applying that notion to the situation I just outlined, who is involved, and what benefits and harms could result?


The people involved are you, your father, and the organization providing the digital twin.  Digital twins are not people—they are software, so while the digital twin is at the core of the issue, it has no ethical rights or responsibilities of its own. 


Consider your father first.  It may be that his mind is so fogged by Alzheimer's disease that he may be completely fooled into thinking he is talking on the phone with and watching you, when in fact he's speaking with a sophisticated piece of software.  So by means of the digital twin, your father may well be persuaded to believe something that is not objectively true. 


But people who deal with Alzheimer's patients know that sometimes the truth has to be at least elided, if not downright falsified.  When my wife's father with dementia lived with us, he would often ask, "Where's your mother?"  His wife had died some years previously.  An answer like, "She's not here right now," doesn't strictly violate the truth, but leaves an impression that is false.  Nevertheless, it's likely to be a less disruptive reply than something like, "You dummy!  Don't you remember she died in 2007?"


Then consider you.  One alternative to providing the digital twin is to hire a full-time personal caregiver, as some people can afford to do.  Besides the expense, there is the question of whether your father will get along with such a person.  While my father-in-law was with us, we tried hiring a caregiver for limited times so that my wife and I could get a few hours' break from continuous 24-hour caregiving.  Unfortunately, the caregiver—an older man—didn't appeal to his patient, and after one such visit we got an earful of complaints about "that guy," and it didn't work out.  So in addition to being expensive, personal caregivers don't always do the job the way you hoped they would.


From your perspective, the digital-twin caregiver has the advantage that if successful, your father will think he is really talking with a very familiar person, and is more likely to follow instructions than if a stranger is dealing with him.


So where's the harm?  What could possibly go wrong?


Consider hacking.  No computer system is 100% secure, and the opportunities for mischief ranging from random meddling to theft and murder are obviously present if someone managed to gain control of the digital twin's software.  It wouldn't be easy, but a lot of very difficult hacks have been carried out by criminals in the past, and if the motivation is there, they will find a way sooner or later. 


Even if criminals aren't interested in messing with digital-twin rest-home caregivers, what if your father starts to like the digital twin more than he likes your real physical presence?  After all, a digital twin could be programmed to have nearly infinite patience in dealing with the repeated questions that dementia patients often ask—"Where's your mother?" being a prime example.  How would you feel if you visit your father some day and he says, "I like you a lot better on the screen than I like you now."? 


And even if the digital twin doesn't manage to alienate you, the original of its copy, I can't rid myself of a feeling of distaste that if the twin succeeds in fooling your father into thinking it's really you, a species of fraud has been committed.


At a minimum, even a successful digital-twin substitution would mean that once again in our digital world, an "I-thou" relationship, in Martin Buber's terms, has been replaced by an "I-it" relationship.  Instead of continuing one of the most meaningful relationships anyone can have in this life—the relationship with one's father—that relationship would be replaced by one that connects your father to a machine.  Yes, a sophisticated machine, a machine that tricks him into thinking he's talking with you, but a machine nonetheless.  In the greater scheme of things, and even leaving religious considerations aside, it's hard to believe that both you and your father would be ultimately better off if your father spent his days talking with a computer and you went about whatever other business you have instead of spending time with him. 


Digital twins are not yet so thick on the ground that we have to deal with them as a routine thing—not yet.  But if the momentum of generative AI keeps up its current pace, it is only a matter of time before they will be a genuine option, and we'll have to decide whether to use them, not only in a medical context but in many others as well.  We should sort out what is right and wrong about their use now, before it's too late.


Sources:  Matthias Braun's article "Represent me: please! Towards an ethics of digital twins in medicine"  appeared in 2021 in the Journal of Medical Ethics, vol. 47, pp. 394-400. 

Monday, October 23, 2023

Carbon Indulgences: The South Pole Scandal


Repentance is hard.  Obtaining true forgiveness is even harder.  So it is no surprise that over the ages, people have tried to find shortcuts around the difficult chores of changing one's ways and being forgiven for going astray.  This week's New Yorker carries the story of one such effort:  the activities of the world's largest carbon-offsetting firm, South Pole, turn out to have been something of a shell game.


Carbon offsetting is based on the notion, accepted as gospel in many circles, that by using fossil fuels, humans are committing slow mass suicide that can be averted only by striving toward "net zero"—that is, not adding any more CO2 to the atmosphere than we take out.  A logical consequence of this notion is that doing anything that produces CO2 is the secular equivalent of a sin in Christian theology.  Unfortunately, this type of sinning is extremely hard to avoid, because ordinary things like turning on the lights, driving a car, flying, or running a business—especially a manufacturing business—necessitate committing manifold sins of this kind. 


As in the days of old when people sought out Catholic priests to get their sins absolved, people and corporations today want to get the same feeling of being washed clean of their carbon misdeeds, but without facing the hard tasks of doing without fossil fuels altogether.


Enter South Pole, and smaller outfits like them.  South Pole sells "carbon offsets."  The basic idea is simple:  if you want to make up for your carbon sins, conveniently measured in millions of tons of CO2, you simply pay South Pole the going rate, which has varied widely over the years like any other commodity.  And voila!—South Pole promises to preserve a Zimbabwean forest that would otherwise be cut down, and those precious trees will absorb not only your carbon sins, but those of all the other companies paying millions for carbon offsets.


Deforestation is another secular sin we've heard a lot about, so it makes a certain amount of sense to pay villagers not to cut down trees.  That's fine as long as the villagers really do refrain from destroying the forest, and also if it was certain that they would have cut it down otherwise.  You can already see a potential problem here, involving long-term hypotheticals.  How sure are we that the forest in question would have been destroyed if the offset money wasn't paid?  And how sure can we be that most of the money is really getting to the villagers whose behavior has to change?


Not so sure, it turns out.  Heidi Blake's article describes in great detail the dubious accounting of one Steve Wentzel, who was South Pole's man in Zimbabwe charged with actually implementing the forest preservation.  According to Blake, Wentzel promised a great deal more than he delivered.  While he still claims to have prevented the requisite amount of deforestation, he has no paper trail to prove it, and says that the erratic Zimbabwean economy and currency forced him to do what amounted to money-laundering in order to get U. S. currency with which to pay the villagers. 


Blake describes how one employee after another of South Pole left the organization once they realized that the firm was taking money mainly to make its customers feel better, not because they were doing anything objectively to improve the world's climate crisis.    In addition, the price of carbon offsets has gyrated wildly in recent years, affected by such things as the failure of the Kyoto Protocol agreement to commit most major carbon-emitting countries to substantial reductions. 


This situation reminds me of an episode in the Protestant Reformation that involved what are called indulgences.  In order to be fair to the Catholic side, I'm going to quote directly from the Catholic Encyclopedia (published around 1914) as to what an indulgence is:  "An indulgence is the extra-sacramental remission of the temporal punishment due, in God's justice, to sin that has been forgiven, which remission is granted by the Church in the exercise of the power of the keys, through the application of the superabundant merits of Christ and of the saints, and for some just and reasonable motive."  Preceding that is a definition of what an indulgence is not, which includes the following:  "It is not a permission to commit sin, nor a pardon of future sin; . . . [i]t is not the forgiveness of the guilt of sin . . . . "


The basic idea, as this Protestant understands it, is this.  Only God through Jesus Christ's atonement really forgives sins.  But even if a sin is forgiven, there remains "temporal punishment," meaning that souls who have died without being fully cleansed of their venial sins have to undergo some suffering in Purgatory before going to Heaven.  And, according to Catholic doctrine, prayers and good works by the living on behalf of those suffering in Purgatory can help them get out sooner than otherwise.


In the 16th century, someone (it isn't clear who) came up with the following jingle in Germany:  "Sobald der Pfenning im Kasten klingt, die Selle aus dem Fegfeuer springt."  In English:  "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul out of purgatory springs."  In other words, if you give me money, I can guarantee your Aunt Bertha will get out of Purgatory.  It was associated with one Johann Tetzel, who apparently preached in the spirit of such a saying without using the actual words. 


The misuse of indulgences was one of the inspirations for the Protestant Reformation, and although the Church still offers indulgences, it no longer puts a price on them. 


South Pole appears to be a modern-day secular equivalent of Johann Tetzel, promising more than it can possibly deliver.  But in a free market, the price of forgiveness can soar, and those who trade in it can profit mightily.  What they do with the money is another question.  The carbon-offset concept seems so inherently open to abuse that I, for one, think it should be abandoned for more practical short-term efforts to deal with the consequences of climate change.  But there will always be those seeking secular forgiveness, and those willing to sell it for a good price.


Sources:  Heidi Blake's article "Hot Air" appears on pp. 42-55 of the Oct. 23, 2023 issue of The New Yorker.  I found the German version of Tetzel's non-quote at James Swan's blog, and referred to the online Catholic Encyclopedia definition of indulgence at

Monday, October 16, 2023

Don't Bet on Online Gambling


Headlines aren't supposed to be in the imperative mood, telling readers what to do.  But in this case I think it's appropriate.  Online gambling in many U. S. states has become a multibillion-dollar industry.  While many people can control their gambling, others can't.  And the ones who can't are suffering, along with their families and friends.


Full disclosure:  I don't personally gamble, I have little interest in sports, and my state of residence (Texas) does not allow sports gambling, either in person or online.  So mine is definitely an outsider's viewpoint, but perhaps that can make me more objective. 


In 1992, the U. S. Congress passed the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) which prohibited sports gambling in all U. S. states and territories, with some minor exceptions.  Over the next decade, individual states where gambling was popular, notably New Jersey, mounted legal challenges to the act, and in 2018 the Supreme Court ruled that it was an unconstitutional violation of states' rights, citing the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution. 


This opened the door for individual states to allow sports gambling, and so far about half of them have in one form or another. 


In the time PASPA was in force, the United Kingdom legalized sports betting and became one of the early hotspots for online gambling with the advent of smart phones.  According to an article in the Financial Times, in recent years a spate of bad publicity and suicides related to gambling addiction has led to a crackdown on online gambling.  Since 2017, UK online gambling organizations have paid fines of about $240 million in fines to that country's gambling regulatory agency.


Like any addiction, online gambling is easy to fall into and hard to escape the clutches of.  The Financial Times article tells the story of 22-year-old Dylan, a New Jersey lawyer in training who recently confessed to his family that he had spent over $50,000 in mostly online bets.  He is currently attending Gamblers Anonymous and hopes to free himself from his addiction, but unless he divests himself of his cellphone and stays away from computers, the means to resume it will always be literally at hand.

Ethically speaking, gambling is an activity in which one person—the gambler—risks something of value, and another person or entity, which we will call "the house" profits from the gambler's risks, on average over time.  Gambling is distinguished from stealing because presumably, the gambler receives something of value from the activity.  And unlike armed robbery, whose victims generally have no choice in the matter, nobody is obliged to gamble.  In this regard, a libertarian would in principle oppose any attempts to regulate gambling, saying that unless some third party is harmed by the transaction, the gambler and the house should be left alone.


There is also the argument that casinos and other forms of gambling benefit certain communities.  This was the idea behind allowing certain Indian tribes to run casinos in the U. S.  While nobody can deny that such things make money, I can't shake an uneasy feeling that basing a particular cultural group's economic viability on such a foundation is not in the best interests of the group, or their customers either, for that matter.


And gambling doesn't take money from all socioeconomic groups equally, either.  Many studies have shown that gambling revenues are regressive, in the sense that most of the money comes from the poorer segments of the population—those who can least afford it, in other words.  The libertarian would come along and say, "Well, if those folks choose to spend their money that way, it's their choice, and who are you to interfere?" 


One way to look at an economic activity is to ask what would happen if a whole lot of people tried to make money that way.  I'm not a trained economist, but it's worth a try, anyway.  Clearly, gambling is a parasite on any economy worthy of the name.  If everybody tried to make money by gambling, no one would have any time left to do anything productive.  The economy would devolve into the equivalent of prisoners playing pinochle for toothpicks.  It might pass the time, but it's not going to put food in anyone's mouth or make anything useful.


Granted, we are not in imminent danger of turning into a nation of 24-hour gamblers.  But online gambling is particularly pernicious because it produces a complete geographic separation between the gambler and where his or her money ultimately ends up.  In a friendly office football pool, you at least know the people who end up with your money if you lose.  Betting on your football team online may enrich some executives in the Cayman Islands, but it's a net loss to your neighborhood. 


Of course, many states (including Texas) run lotteries, which is a sort of gambling monopoly exercised by the state involved.  And because I teach at a state university, some portion of my paycheck could probably be traced to revenues from the state lottery.  I wish it were otherwise, because I disapprove of gambling in general, but not so much that I'm going to quit my job over it.  This is really just an example of how an industry can co-opt government into benefiting from its operations, even if on balance those operations are harmful to the public.


It's interesting that Richard Daynard, who is a professor of law at Northeastern University, is now looking into filing a class-action lawsuit against online gambling outfits, claiming that their advertisements are misleading and that they encourage problem gamblers to go deeper into their addiction.  The online betting industry had better pay attention to what Prof. Daynard is doing, because he was one of the prime movers behind the giant settlement with the tobacco industry that took $200 billion out of their collective hides for deceptive advertising.  After that lawsuit, you didn't see any more ads with doctors in white coats saying how healthy X cigarette was for you.  So if you're invested in online gambling, you might try to find some other way to make money—or lose it.


Sources:  The Financial Times article "The Dark Side of the U. S. Sports Betting Boom" by Oliver Barnes appeared on Aug. 9, 2023 at  I also referred to Wikipedia's article on PASPA.


Monday, October 09, 2023

Irony in Orlando: Men Gate-Crash Grace Hopper Job Fair


For the last three decades, one of the biggest job fairs for women in tech has been the Grace Hopper Celebration, named after the computer-science pioneer who devised the theory of machine-independent programming languages.  In the past, the fair has been a Mecca of sorts for women looking for high-tech jobs, and not surprisingly, the great majority of attendees have been women, or lately "non-binary" persons as well, according to a news report in Wired. 


This year's GHC held in Orlando, Florida was a disappointment to many women, however.  The problem?  In a word, men.


Lots of high-tech companies have laid off their skilled help in the last couple of years, and so there is a larger than usual turnover in the field, with people of both sexes trying to find jobs.  By Federal law, GHC cannot discriminate against men by, for example, allowing only women (and non-binaries) to attend.  So technically, it has always been open to men, but everybody involved knew that the main idea was to provide a place where women (and non-binaries) could gain the exclusive attention of recruiters, and recruiters could count on being able to make their upper management happy by hiring more women.  But this year, not so much.


If anyone kept statistics on the number of men and number of women (and non-binaries), the Wired reporter, Amanda Hoover, didn't cite them.  The most she could get out of a conference organizer was that there was "an increase in participation of self-identifying males."  Clearly, there were more men than many women wanted to see there.  A founder of a "female-talent focused media platform" said she heard from a number of women who were sad and frustrated.  A female student from Ohio State said, "Now is one of the most important times to advocate for gender equity."   


Consider that phrase "gender equity."  The word "equity" has chased "equality" out of rights-based public discourse like bad money chases good out of circulation.  That is not to make a iniquitous judgment against equity.  But some people use the word "equity" to mean a goal that seeks something close to identical outcomes, not just equal opportunities for everyone.


Here's an example from my own field of engineering.  Prior to about 1960, a woman who wished to become a professional engineer faced tremendous obstacles which were social, legal, and customary in nature.  Many engineering schools accepted only men.  The ones who accepted women sometimes didn't allow them to take certain courses or specializations.  If a woman managed to get a degree and an engineering job, she was almost certain in a meeting to be asked to go get the coffee, as I heard from a pioneering civil engineer who also happened to be female. 

The field of engineering, in the U. S., anyway, lacked both equality and equity for women.


Following the enactment of various civil-rights laws and the advance of feminism in the 1960s, most of the formal legal and organizational barriers that kept women out of engineering collapsed.  Women could take any engineering course or degree, and many did.  As time went on, they went from being a tiny and obvious minority to being relatively common in the field, and in a generation some rose to positions of management, founders, and so on.  Most people would agree that equality has been achieved for women in engineering, by and large.


But what about equity?  Many government officials, politicians, and activists who concern themselves with such things keep their eyes on the raw numbers of women in this or that field, and compare that number with the magic 51.1%  What is magic about 51.1%?  That is the fraction of the U. S. population who are female.  If the percentage of women in any field whatsoever—engineering, law, medicine, harness racing—is less than 51.1%, to these folks that is ipso facto evidence that equity has not been achieved.  Hence the billions of dollars expended by the U. S. National Science Foundation on programs for women in engineering, and other perpetual efforts to bring the fraction of women in engineering schools and organizations closer to that magic number.


So far, it hasn't worked, at least in the U. S.  Those of us who believe that there are deep-seated psychological as well as physical differences between men and women (and non-binaries), which may lead the two sexes to choose different kinds of careers for reasons that may be obscure even to themselves, are not overly troubled by this fact.  I rejoice that the barriers to equality came down.  I find it easier to remember the names of the women in my classes, not solely because there are only a few of them, but I'm sure it helps.  But I don't think it is a blot on the escutcheon of engineering that we have fewer than 51.1% women in the field, any more than I think it is a shame that there are less than 51.1% of men teaching kindergarten classes. 


The irony of a womens' tech job fair being overrun by men is this.  The same law that allowed women to do engineering at all, allows men to go to job fairs designed mainly for women.  So when men take advantage of a privilege that women have benefited from, the women get annoyed. 


I personally don't see why the organizers of the GHC can't declare it a private club for four days and admit only people they like, whether they be women, non-binary, red-headed, or whatever.  If women (and non-binaries) want to have a meeting to themselves, by all means let them have it.  Surely their lawyers could find a way to do this.  But it would smack of the old private-club dodge that Southern swimming pools tried for a while to exclude blacks, until the lawyers put a stop to that.  So maybe it wouldn't work after all.


The best outcome of all would be if men, out of deference to womens' delicate feelings, and acting as true gentlemen, refrained from registering for the GHC next year, and let the women know the reason they were staying away.  But that would probably just make them even madder.


Sources:  Amanda Hoover's article "Men Overran a Job Fair Designed for Women in Tech" appeared on the Wired website at  I also referred to the Wikipedia article on Grace Hopper.

Monday, October 02, 2023

A Fatal Ammonia-Tanker Crash in Illinois


Around 5 p. m. on Friday, Sept. 29, a wreck on Interstate 70 between Effingham and Teutopolis, Illinois caused authorities to divert traffic from the interstate onto the older Route 40 that goes directly through the two towns.  Farming is the main business in that region, and among the vehicles diverted onto Route 40 that evening was a tanker truck carrying 7,500 gallons of anhydrous ammonia, which is a popular form of nitrogen fertilizer.


At 9:25 p. m., the truck overturned in a multiple-vehicle collision which is still being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).  Because of the large toxic plume of ammonia that resulted, first responders evacuated about 500 people from northeast Teutopolis overnight, allowing them to return late Saturday.  Once rescuers were able to access the scene, it was found that five people had died, including two children under 12.  It was not clear at this writing whether the victims died of ammonia inhalation or from effects of the crash itself, but five survivors were taken to a local hospital as well.


Every day, hundreds of ammonia tankers travel between distribution points on their way to supplying farmers with what many consider to be an essential and economical fertilizer.  Ammonia gas, which consists of one atom of nitrogen and three of hydrogen, is a colorless acrid-smelling substance that boils at 28 below zero Fahrenheit.  (The household bottles of ammonia that can be found in grocery stores are actually weak solutions of the gas in water.)  Before Fritz Haber developed a high-pressure process to synthesize ammonia directly from hydrogen and nitrogen in the air around 1910, ammonia was obtained mainly by distilling animal urine, a messy and expensive job at best.  After World War II-era chemical plants found themselves with an overcapacity of ammonia plants once the war ended, the price dropped to the point that direct injection of the gas into soil at a depth of six inches or more became a fast and economical means of applying nitrogen fertilizer.  Since then, an entire anhydrous-ammonia infrastructure has grown up to deliver the substance to millions of acres of farmland, usually without incident.


But every now and then something goes wrong, as it did last week in Teutopolis.  Despite the best efforts of mechanical designers to make tanker trucks safe, collisions can sever connecting pipes and cause leaks, which is apparently what happened last Friday.  Ammonia as a gas is lighter than air, but if enough is released near the ground it will form a suffocating cloud that cannot be seen.  This is why the authorities took the prudent precaution of evacuating part of Teutopolis once the nature of the accident became clear. 


In addition to being toxic at concentrations above a few parts per million, ammonia is explosive when present at air concentrations higher than about 15%.  So if you escape being suffocated by it, you could instead be blown to bits. 


It's surprising that there aren't more accidents involving anhydrous ammonia, but when it is used in properly designed equipment by trained operators who know how dangerous it is, it can be transported safely all the way from the factory to the soil, where it is quickly absorbed by complex chemicals and biological materials and becomes available to fuel plant growth. 


At the same time, it is a highly unnatural process characterized by many features that we associate with modern industrial culture:  large-scale concentrations of products, complex distribution networks, and use in largely monoculture farms (all corn or all wheat, for example).  All these things go against the grain (so to speak) of the small-farming idea that each farm should be its own ecosystem, recycling manure to the soil, which grows the food for the animals, and so on. 


For whatever reason, we as a culture seem to be happy with (or at least blissfully unaware of) the forces and compromises involved in the kind of industrial-scale agriculture that we have.  The cheapest food, if externalities such as ammonia accidents are ignored, will always be the mass-produced type made with the minimum amount of labor using the largest economies of scale.  But externalities are not nothing, and the problems that large-scale agriculture causes, ranging from pollution to alleged animal cruelty to obesity, don't often have dollar prices attached to them. 


If we were losing hundreds of people a year in anhydrous-ammonia accidents, the issue might come into public consciousness to the extent that some might at least question the propriety of fertilizing plants this way.  But as it is, such mishaps are so unusual as to be newsworthy in themselves.  While it is tragic any time anybody is killed, we may find that the people who lost their lives in this accident were killed by the consequences of the collision itself and not the ammonia that was released afterwards.  Either way, it seems that we as a nation are willing to accept some hazards—namely, having tons of anhydrous ammonia rolling around on highways and railroads—in exchange for the advantages that the process confers on farming.


I recently read a book with a title that my wife remarked was one of the longest for a non-fiction book she's seen:  The End is Near And It's Going To Be Awesome:  How Going Broke Will Leave America Richer, Happier, and More Secure.  Its author, Kevin Williamson, has a background in economics, but he's not one of these wonky numbers-only types who reduces every human to a rational utility optimizer.  His main point is that when society wants to do something, the best way to do it is for interested people to get together and figure it out for themselves.  Only as a last resort should we invoke the power of politics to pass laws about the issue.  The reason is that law is a blunt instrument that is usually wielded by the powerful to exploit the less powerful, and no matter how well-intended the action is to start with, the effect usually ends up making the strong better off at the expense of the less fortunate.


So while we await the results of the Teutopolis accident investigation, let's hope it doesn't lead to a call for new regulations on the anhydrous-ammonia industry.  From all appearances, that enterprise seems to be handling things pretty well on its own, and I hope the tank-truck makers learn from this accident how to prevent more like it in the future.


Sources:  I referred to articles on the Teutopolis accident at

and  Kevin D. Williamson's The End is Near And It's Going To Be Awesome was published in 2013 by HarperCollins.