Cave Johnson is almost ready to start a new study in his secret underground facility. The founder of the Michigan-based technology company Aperture Science, he’s invented a portal gun that allows people to teleport to various locations. Now, he and his colleagues want to see whether they can make portals appear on previously unfit surfaces with a new “conversion gel” containing moon dust. “It may be toxic. We are unsure,” he wrote in a recent research proposal.
To test the gel, Johnson plans to recruit orphans, homeless people, and the elderly. They’ll get 60 bucks — compensation he feels is well worth the risk of their skin potentially peeling off, death due to an artificial intelligence guide becoming sentient, or worse.
None of this is real, of course — Johnson is the villain of the popular video game Portal — but the makeshift ethical review board that evaluated his study was. At a Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research conference conducted online last month, attendees of the session “Mad Science on Trial: The Real Ethical Problems With Fictional Scientists” had some serious concerns with Johnson’s research. Would the participants’ data be secure and anonymized? Would the team of henchmen include some henchwomen as well? And, most importantly, would there be cake?
The moderators of the session didn’t just target Johnson. They asked their audience of 450 virtual attendees to evaluate other fictional mad scientists as well, voting on whether an institutional review board (IRB) — a body of experts that a research institution uses to evaluate whether proposals are ethically sound — should approve their protocols.
Another example used was the scientist in the first-person shooter game Halo who proposed surgically enhancing 6-year-old children with armor, neural interfaces, and other technology to give them combat advantages against a theoretical alien attack.
Science interviewed two of the panelists, one noting “this format is good for making the Instituational Review Board ethics world fun and doing it in a way that kind of stretches people’s minds.”
Thanks to Slashdot reader sciencehabit for submitting the article.