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News: February/March 2019

Brain to Brain networking demonstrated • Saudi Arabia to lift philosophy teaching ban • Philosophy Now Against Stupidity Award — News reports by Anja Steinbauer

Brain to Brain

Are you thinking what I’m thinking? What if we could know the answer directly without uttering a word?

Over recent decades physics and neuroscience have developed tools such electroencephalograms (EEGs) that record electrical activity in different areas of the brain and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which can transmit information into the brain. These technologies together are now enabling revolutionary developments in brain-to-brain communication.

After succeeding three years ago in connecting two people via a non-invasive brain-to-brain interface, Dr Andrea Stocco and his colleagues at the University of Washington in Seattle have now created the first multiperson brain-to-brain network, allowing three individuals to send and receive information directly to their brains. Their paper on arXiv.org reports that their BrainNet interface made it possible for three people to play a collaborative Tetris-like game. “Our results raise the possibility of future brain-to-brain interfaces that enable cooperative problem-solving by humans using a ‘social network’ of connected brains,” they say. Look out, here come the Borg!

Philosophy in Saudi Schools

High schools in Saudi Arabia will soon begin teaching philosophy and critical thinking, according to Education Minister Ahmad al-Issa. The move is being presented as part of an ambitious reform package in Saudi education. Training has begun for 200 teachers who will teach high school students. Philosophy has been banned from Saudi schools ever since religious scholars issued fatwas against it in the 1960s.

Ethics Left Behind in Biotech Surge?

Chinese biophysicist He Jiankui has manipulated the genomes of embryos by means of CRISPR/Cas9, leading to the birth of two twin girls with engineered DNA. “He really thought that he was doing good,” said Prof Lovell-Badge of the Francis Crick Institute, co-organiser of the conference at which He presented his work. “Here you have a physicist who knows little biology, is very rich, has a huge ego, wants to be the first at doing something that will change the world.”

Dr He said his goal was to give the babies a natural ability to resist HIV but Lovell-Badge points out that this was unnecessary as IVF techniques can already remove the infection before implantation. Scientists are also concerned that he may have left the babies more susceptible to life threatening influenza. Dr He is now reportedly under house arrest in China and likely to face charges.

Religious Freedom versus Animal Welfare

In Belgium, a ban on the Muslim and Jewish methods of ritually slaughtering animals went into effect on New Year’s Day. Tensions have grown in Europe over the balance between animal welfare and religious freedom. Laws across Europe and European Union regulations require that animals be rendered insensible to pain before slaughter, in the case of larger animals usually by stunning. However, slaughter by Muslim halal and Jewish kosher rules requires for an animal to be in perfect health, so stunning it first is not an option. Instead the animal would be killed with a single cut to the neck that severs critical blood vessels. The animal loses consciousness almost immediately, and defenders of the method say it may cause less suffering than other approaches. The EU and many other states allow religious exceptions to the stunning requirement.

However, both animal welfare advocates and right-wing nationalists push to ban ritual slaughter for their own reasons, which causes religious minorities in Belgium and other countries to worry they are the targets of prejudice under the guise of animal protection. “It is impossible to know the true intentions of people,” said Yaakov David Schmahl, a senior rabbi in Antwerp.

Philosophy Now Award for Contributions in the Fight Against Stupidity

Angela Phillips
Angela Phillips

We are delighted to announce that the winner of Philosophy Now’s 2019 Award for Contributions in the Fight Against Stupidity is journalist, academic and author Angela Phillips.

Professor Phillips has been a practising journalist for over 40 years and has taught journalism at Goldsmith’s, University of London, for two decades. She has carried out extensive research into the ethics and practice of journalism in the social media age. This is reflected in her book Journalism in Context, which starts by asking “What is news?” and provides a clear, philosophically-informed guide to many questions concerning modern journalism, including sources, media ownership, audiences and the social contexts within which journalists train and work. The particular challenges of digital journalism and news on social media led her to coauthor, with Eiri Elvestad, Misunderstanding News Audiences: Seven Myths of the Social Media Era. She also founded local news website EastLondonLines.

The judges think that teaching people to be better, more ethical and more self-aware journalists is an excellent way of fighting stupidity. We would like to show our appreciation of Professor Phillips’ work, and of that of all good journalists. The Award will be presented to Professor Phillips on 17 January 2019 at London’s famous Conway Hall.

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