Forbidden Research: agenda

Mim Adkins

July 21, 2016

Welcome and introduction
Cory Doctorow, Journalist, Author, and Co-editor of Boing Boing
Joi Ito, Director, MIT Media Lab
Ethan Zuckerman, Director, MIT Center for Civic Media

Against the law: countering lawful abuses of digital surveillance
bunnie huang, Author, Hacking the Xbox: An Introduction to Reverse Engineering
Edward Snowden

The FBI argues that universal government access to personal devices is justified by the threat of terrorism, but around the world, digital surveillance is leading to the disappearance of journalists, human-rights workers, and dissidents. History tells us that many jurisdictions can secure easy access to court orders to monitor civil society, particularly those with poor records on human rights. Can researchers provide a means to protect the work of journalists that is more reliable than law, and what are the collateral risks? Learn more via bunnie and Edward's article on PubPub.

Messing with nature part I: genetics
George Church, Professor of Genetics, Harvard Medical School
Kevin Esvelt, Director of the Sculpting Evolution Research Group, MIT Media Lab
Megan Palmer, Senior Research Scholar, Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University
Ryan Phelan, Executive Director and Co-founder, Revive & Restore, The Long Now Foundation

How do you innovate in a field of massive potential and risk? When it comes to genetically engineering living things, most of the technology being developed happens behind closed doors. How do we change the perception of science and genetic engineering with an emphasis on openness for the sake of safety, ethics, and cautionary vigilance but continue to move forward? Who should be responsible for making “god-like” decisions that will ultimately affect our entire future as a society?

Messing with nature part II: climate
Stewart Brand, Editor, Whole Earth Catalog and Founder, Long Now Foundation
David Keith, Professor of Applied Physics, Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and Professor of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School
Gernot Wagner, Research Associate at Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; Co-author, Climate Shock

Geoengineering, or using technological interventions to address climate change, is much on the minds of scientists, policy makers and citizen groups. As our ability to “mess” with nature evolves from science fiction to reality, we are faced with serious questions about whether the possibility of success is worth the massive potential risks. Technologies for reflecting solar radiation back into space are being researched, but what will happen if we deploy them? Who should decide? Who will?

Rites vs. rights: Islam, women's rights, and global security
Saeed A. Khan, Professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern History, Politics, and Culture, Wayne State University
Alaa Murabit, Founder of The Voice of Libyan Women, UN SDG Global Advocate & High-Level Commissioner

With a US presidential candidate proposing a ban on Muslims entering the US, Islam has become a popular "foreign" target for demagogues and fearmongers. At the same time, the recent passing of prominent Muslim athlete Muhammad Ali has revealed ways in which Islam had become a popular, domestic target of the same groups—later turned into an engine promoting civil and political rights at home.

These two phenomena have prompted moderate thinkers to reevaluate the past and possibilities for the compatibility of Islamic and Western values. Of the anti-Islam agitators, one area of concern involves the role of women in Islamic law. Less discussed is the intersection of Islam with civil and political rights. And even less heard within this debate are the voices of Islamic law scholars, historians, and practitioners who read the Qurʾān as offering strong protections for women’s rights and for civil and political rights. Groups such as The Voice of Libyan Women and efforts such as its Noor Campaign make compelling arguments for women’s rights from within Islam, not in opposition to Islam, challenge the narrative that Islam is anti-women and anti-west.

Do we misunderstand Islam and its place in the West and in the world? If so, is it because of American misunderstanding of Islam, or tensions between modern and traditional cultural values in some Muslim-majority nations?

Sexual deviance: can technology protect our children?
Ron Arkin, Roboethicist and Professor, School of Interactive Computing, Georgia Tech
Christina Couch, Journalist
Kate Darling, MIT Media Lab, IP Theory, Policy, and Robot Ethics, Fellow at Harvard Berkman Center
Ethan Zuckerman, Director, MIT Center for Civic Media

Conducting research on adults who have sex with children is virtually impossible due to ethical and legal restrictions. The advancement of technologies like robots and virtual reality has opened the door to exploring questions that were previously not possible. But while a U.S. court case has held that virtual child pornography is legal, the law in this area is controversial and emotionally charged. Legal uncertainties and vast stigma make actual research difficult. At the same time, a better understanding of this deviant behavior has the potential to significantly change lives.

Forbidden research: why we can’t do that
Alexandra Elbakyan, Founder, Sci-Hub
Karrie Karahalios, Assistant Professor, Siebel Center for Computer Science, University of Illinois
J. Nathan Matias, PhD Candidate, MIT Media Lab, Fellow at Harvard Berkman Center

The pursuit of knowledge encourages us to follow every lead, explore every option, try every experiment. But the production and dissemination of knowledge is also a business, and the constraints on that business often run counter to the ideals of academic research. What should we do when legal barriers prevent us from carrying out important research? How do we balance legal and ethical concerns, and which lines can't we cross? How should researchers respond to systems of disseminating knowledge that keep scholarship inaccessible to most of the world?

Hacking culture
Liz George, MIT Alum Class of 2008

Hacking at MIT involves doing something clever and clandestine. Institute hacks have ranged from a big, black “MIT” weather balloon magically appearing on the field during the Harvard-Yale football game, to the placement of a police car, lights flashing, atop MIT’s Great Dome. While often illegal, hacks can be guided by strong ethical principles. This session explores hacking culture at MIT and its value in the education of scientists and engineers.

Disobedience: breaking the rules for social good
Liz George, MIT Alum Class of 2008
bunnie huang, Author, Hacking the Xbox: An Introduction to Reverse Engineering
oi Ito, Director, MIT Media Lab
Karrie Karahalios, Assistant Professor, Siebel Center for Computer Science, University of Illinois

Many ideas and norms once considered unthinkable, like test tube babies and gay marriage, have now become everyday norms. It’s impossible to imagine life without them. For society to evolve, however, we must always be challenging our norms as well as the rules and laws that reflect them. Our institutions must lead in a way that harnesses this questioning into a driver for positive change. This session looks at how institutions can become “disobedience robust” — cultivating the ability to question themselves and accept questioning from others.

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