Brave New Planet: A Learner’s Guide
Free open educational resources from MIT offer useful background on the topics covered in a popular new podcast.
Eric Lander, Professor of Biology at MIT and the founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, is hosting a new podcast, Brave New Planet. The episodes are beautifully produced and rich in content, generally running slightly over an hour in length and providing articulate, accessible overviews of the ethical questions surrounding new technologies in the 21st century. If, after listening to one of the episodes, you find yourself hungry for more information, you’re in luck: the following resources from OpenCourseWare and other MIT initiatives may be just what you’re looking for.
Episode 1: “What’s at Stake”
In the opening episode, Professor Lander talks with journalist Malcolm Gladwell about the changing position of science in society. The OCW supplemental resource RES.STP-001 Science Policy Bootcamp explores the factors that drive national science and technology policy. The course WGS.160J Science Activism: Gender, Race, and Power examines the role scientists have played as activists in social movements in the United States. And STS.081 Innovation Systems for Science, Technology, Energy, Manufacturing, and Health provides an overview of the federal government’s role in nurturing the development of new technologies.
Episode 2: “Deepfakes and the Future of Truth”
This episode delves into the application of artificial intelligence (AI) tools such as generative adversarial networks in the creation of fake images and video. Listeners who want to develop a broader understanding of basic AI concepts might want to check out Patrick Henry Winston’s popular course 6.034 Artificial Intelligence on OCW; to learn more about the work of episode guest Francesca Panetta and the people at MIT’s Center for Advanced Virtuality, check out their eerily plausible video of a real speech that Richard Nixon never actually gave.
Episode 3: “A Radical Approach to Climate Change”
Solar geoengineering is a fairly simple technology and could be implemented at relatively low cost to offset global warming. But as the conversations in this episode reveal, it’s extremely controversial, both for its potential practical side effects and for the ethical questions it raises. Learn more about the topic in these three OCW courses: 1.84J Atmospheric Chemistry, which includes lecture notes from two lectures on the role of atmospheric chemistry on climate; 12.340 Global Warming Science, which covers the evidence for anthropogenic climate change as well as proposed mitigation techniques; and 12.085 Seminar in Environmental Science, which focuses specifically on geoengineering and provides an extensive reading list on the topic along with students’ summaries and analyses of the readings. You can also find a treasure trove of valuable information at MIT’s Climate Portal.
Episode 4: “Robots and the Future of War”
This episode focuses on military applications of AI-driven robotics. For a fuller understanding of how artificial intelligence can allow real-world robots to function autonomously, look at the OCW course 16.412J Cognitive Robotics. The ethical questions behind these technologies, and behind artificial intelligence in general, are explored in more detail in one of OCW’s newest courses, 10.01 Ethics for Engineers: Artificial Intelligence.
Episode 5: “What Algorithms Say About You”
Predictive algorithms developed through machine learning can be astoundingly effective at spotting trends and making judgments based on vast aggregations of individually unremarkable data. These algorithms have been embraced for their potential applications in health care, law enforcement, insurance, and commerce, but they may also encode subtle biases based on the data used in training them. You can learn more about the technical side of the topic in the OCW course 6.S897 Machine Learning for Healthcare and the supplemental resource RES.LL-005 Mathematics of Big Data and Machine Learning, or delve into problems of algorithmic bias in the resource RES.EC-001 Exploring Fairness in Machine Learning for International Development.
Episode 6: “Reshaping Nature through Gene Drives”
The season’s final episode examines the applications and potential drawbacks of gene drives, a set of techniques that can cause genes artificially inserted into the DNA of individual organisms to spread preferentially throughout entire populations of a species. The basics of DNA, genes, and gene editing are explained in the OCW course 7.016 Introductory Biology and in Prof. Lander’s own MITx course Introduction to Biology — The Secret of Life. (If you’ve already forgotten the biology you learned in high school, you might also find it useful to run through Pre-7.01 Getting Up to Speed in Biology, a new offering at MIT’s Open Learning Library!) And genetic engineering forms a large part of the content in OCW’s 24.06J Bioethics, a philosophy course on how to recognize moral or ethical problems in biological science and medicine and how to think productively about those problems.