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The Bioethics Film Festival Wants Scientists to Heed the Warnings of Science-Fiction

The Penn Bioethics Film fest is trying to start a public dialog about the real scientific issues that appear in films such as 'Ex Machina,' and 'Her.'

In Spike Jones' Her we were faced with the a rare positive depiction of invasive technology. While the human counterpart in the film becomes dependent on his AI operating system, voiced by the breathy Scarlett Johansson, there's no hidden evil agenda of the machine. Instead, the film represents the computer as innocent—eerily similar fashion to Siri and Alexa. The integral question of the film is close to my heart: Namely, by learning to love, does it become a her?

Her is not the first charge into our dependency on complex machines. Artificial Intelligence, environmental impact, pandemic diseases, cyber-body modifications, and any point of tech often expand into a plot based on the question, "What if this went wrong?"

However, while films might implant multiple visions of a dystopian future, a real world discussion in the ethics of experimentation can be surprisingly absent. That void can breed a whole host of misunderstandings about real world science, leading us to treat revolutionary ideas, whether CRISPR or AI, only as things to fear.

Jonathan Moreno presents at the 2nd annual Penn Biotethics Film Festival 2017.

Jonathan Moreno presents at the 2nd annual Penn Biotethics Film Festival 2017. Image: Cait Molden/Motherboard.

Jonathan Moreno, a bioethics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is trying to bridge the gap of public concern, pop culture, and the isolation of the lab through movies. He launched the Penn Bioethics Film Festival in 2016 with the intent of opening a public dialogue between relevant films and bioethical issues. This year's festival ran April 4-6, showing Ex Machina, Her and Avatar chosen for this year's theme, "Almost Human." Around 50 students, professors, and Philadelphia natives attended the screening of Her on Wednesday night representing this cross section of sci-fi and academics.

"People will simply allude to Spock or Data or some science fiction film in their lectures," Moreno told me, "we do it all the time. There's an implicit conversation between the entertainment industry and people who are interested in bioethical issues. Our biggest problem is trying to figure out what not to show."

"People will simply allude to Spock or Data or some science fiction film in their lectures."

Scientists can often work in isolation from overarching societal concerns. Specifically, that the ethics of scientific research is based on merely having results or no results without consideration of "social responsibility."

Introducing bioethics into the scientific community is recent movement of sorts. Moreno, who served on a presidential advisory committee under the Obama Administration, admits, "It wasn't so great in the early 2000s when the stem cell and cloning issues were really hot." He said that the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine used to avoid ethics all together, under the opinion, "We're not the National Academy of Ethics."

Now, burgeoning concerns about the recent headway of CRISPR/Cas9 have prompted a rethinking of parameters for judging morality in research. Suggested guidelines include transparency of intent and analysis of societal impact. This might seem inherent in a science that could irreversibly alter human evolution, but these judgments of "morality" can get complicated when asking at what point a cluster of cells is considered a person, or when a program is self aware enough to no longer be owned.

If more transparency is the answer, then Moreno sees movies as a public service. But the films aren't enough, he said. Movies and television can potentially inform the public, but using these mediums means mitigating the fear that is artfully created Hollywood. "The interesting thing about this genre is that it almost always turns out bad," he says.

The two other films featured at the festival serve as examples of the majority. Ex Machina carries a darker concept and ending using the trope of an unregulated d scientist creating in a vacuum. Avatar represents avaricious companies gifted with the technology that destroys biodiversity. The paradox that viewers tend to ignore these issues in fiction hits harder, as headlines related to these questions light up their news feed. "It bothers me that there aren't more films about the positive role of scientists, but again the industry figures out how to make money," said Moreno.

Recently, Moreno wrote about the fate of bioethical discussions in the Trump Administration. As Trump overlooks data pertaining to climate change and the influence of science in policy, the future of the bioethical discussion in the White House is uncertain. This isolation of science from the purview of politicians has been regarded as a huge danger for these fragile issues.

In the face of this uncertainty, occasions like the Bioethics Film Festival will become more integral. Even as a subliminal suggestion, filmmakers are playing with these possible philosophical precepts. The gift of these movies is that that they simply exist. And Jonathan Moreno believes that this often misguided genre of science fiction could figure how to advance science instead of working against it. "I mean the industry is mainly about money, but once you've decided to make money, you can do it in an informed and positive way."

Next year is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein, which is likely the theme of the fest in 2018. With the onset of CRISPR and gene drives in the news, this subject will feel even more relevant. Comparisons of Shelley's classic to more modern versions of physical augmentation are inevitable. And two centuries later, we still find ourselves asking the question: will altering ourselves, this time via genetics, make humanity better? Or will we unleash monsters in the process?

Correction: this story originally incorrectly stated that Moreno served on a presidential commission under the Bush Administration, when in fact, it was the Obama Administration. We have since updated the copy and regret the error.

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