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This website was archived on July 20, 2019. It is frozen in time on that date.
Exolymph creator Sonya Mann's active website is Sonya, Supposedly.

Therapy Bots and Nondisclosure Agreements

Two empty chairs. Image via R. Crap Mariner.

Image via R. Crap Mariner.

Let’s talk about therapy bots. I don’t want to list every therapy bot that’s ever existed — and there are a few — so I’ll just trust you to Google “therapy bots” if you’re looking for a survey of the efforts so far. Instead I want to discuss the next-gen tech. There are ethical quandaries.

If (when) effective therapy bots come onto the market, it will be a miracle. Note the word “effective”. Maybe it’ll be 3D facial models in VR, and machine learning for the backend, but it might be some manifestation I can’t come up with. Doesn’t really matter.

They have to actually help people deal with their angst and self-loathing and grief and resentment, but any therapy bots that are able to do that will do a tremendous amount of good. Not because I think they’ll be more skilled than human therapists — who knows — but because they’ll be more broadly available.

Software is an order of magnitude cheaper than human employees, so currently underserved demographics may have greater access to professional mental healthcare than they ever have before. Obviously the situation for rich people will still be better, but it’s preferable to be a poor person with a smartphone in a world where rich people have laptops than it is to be a poor person without a smartphone in a world where no one has a computer of any size.

Here’s the thing. Consider the data-retention policies of the companies that own the therapy bots. Of course all the processing power and raw data will live in the cloud. Will access to that information be governed by the same strict nondisclosure laws as human therapists? To what extent will HIPAA and equivalent non-USA privacy requirements apply?

Now, I don’t know about you, but if my current Homo sapiens therapist asked if she could record audio of our sessions, I would say no. I’m usually pretty blasé about privacy, and I’m somewhat open about being mentally ill, but the actual content of my conversations with my therapist is very serious to me. I trust her, but I don’t trust technology. All kinds of companies get breached.

Information on anyone else’s computer — that includes the cloud, which is really just a rented datacenter somewhere — is information that you don’t control, and information that you don’t control has a way of going places you don’t expect it to.

Here’s something I guarantee would happen: An employee at a therapy bot company has a spouse who uses the service. That employee is abusive. They access their spouse’s session data. What happens next? Who is held responsible?

I’m not saying that therapy bots are an inherently bad idea, or that the inevitable harm to individuals would outweigh the benefits to lots of other individuals. I’m saying that we have a hard enough time with sensitive data as it is. And I believe that collateral damage is a bug, not a feature.

Great comments on /r/DarkFuturology.

Fecal Inquiries: DIY Medicine & DIY Ethics

Josiah Zayner is a self-described biohacker who used to work at NASA and now runs a company that sells home science kits. He’s suffered from painful gastrointestinal problems for years, so he decided to conduct a DIY refresh of his gut bacteria. There’s no need to dance around this: Zayner consumed his friend’s shit in pill form. (For more background info, check out The Fecal Transplant Foundation’s website.) Arielle Duhaime-Ross wrote a fascinating article about this radical effort.

Photo by Vjeran Pavic for The Verge.

Photo by Vjeran Pavic for The Verge.

Zayner wasn’t deterred by the medical professionals who unanimously thought his idea was terrible:

“Of the nine biology and medical professionals [the journalist] spoke with, every single one stressed that Zayner’s experiment could make him very sick. Zayner vowed not to analyze his donor’s feces — it contradicted, he said, the DIY ethos of the experiment and could make the project seem less accessible to laypeople. As a result, he was putting himself at risk for hepatitis, rotavirus, and a whole slew of other pathogens and parasites. And his decision to take antibiotics to kill his own bacteria before the transplant was risky, said OpenBiome’s Osman. Some people carry C. diff without any symptoms; if Zayner was one those people, disrupting the balance in his gut could enable C. diff to flourish — and the consequences of that could be life-threatening.”

Spoiler alert: Zayner is okay so far, and he reports that his gastrointestinal problems have improved. (Anecdotal evidence, to be sure, but not entirely meaningless.) His stated motivation of encouraging science as a means of liberation is admirable:

“I just want people to be able to be free. Free to explore this reality. I think all other freedoms come from this one. Freedom to have access to information and tools and resources. It is hard to oppress people without controlling what information they possess.”

Zayner’s point is reinforced by the panicky behavior of dictators — see Turkish president Erdogan’s current absurd (but terrifying) attempts to curb criticism of his regime.

Zayner also did a Reddit AMA after the article was published. One commenter critiqued Zayner’s “vigilante” approach because it didn’t contribute to the scientific community’s aggregate knowledge:

“The fact that the general populace think your results mean something doesn’t mean anything. They don’t have the scientific background to draw conclusions from your results. […] The fact that you cannot publish your results [in a peer-reviewed journal] means prominent members of the scientific community disagree with what you have done, and are saying your results cannot be trusted.”

Zayner disagreed with this characterization, responding:

“Just because the authority is not doing something, or does not believe in something, does not mean it is not possible or doesn’t exist. Every scientific discovery has ended decades of ‘actual scientists’ being dead wrong.”

Personally, I think we need both. We need university-sanctioned studies and we need biohackers. We need work that establishes ground rules and work that pushes limits. Luckily, both will persist.

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