July 21, 2012
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.
July 21, 2012
In the basement of the Northwest Science Building here at Harvard University, a locked door is marked with a pink and yellow sign: “Caution: Radioactive Material.” Inside researchers buzz around wearing dour expressions and plastic gloves. Among them is Kenneth Hayworth. He’s tall and gaunt, dressed in dark-blue jeans, a blue polo shirt, and gray running shoes. He looks like someone who sleeps little and eats less.
Hayworth has spent much of the past few years in a windowless room carving brains into very thin slices. He is by all accounts a curious man, known for casually saying things like, “The human race is on a beeline to mind uploading: We will preserve a brain, slice it up, simulate it on a computer, and hook it up to a robot body.” He wants that brain to be his brain. He wants his 100 billion neurons and more than 100 trillion synapses to be encased in a block of transparent, amber-colored resin—before he dies of natural causes.
Why? Ken Hayworth believes that he can live forever.
But first he has to die.
“If your body stops functioning, it starts to eat itself,” he explains to me one drab morning this spring, “so you have to shut down the enzymes that destroy the tissue.” If all goes according to plan, he says cheerfully, “I’ll be a perfect fossil.” Then one day, not too long from now, his consciousness will be revived on a computer. By 2110, Hayworth predicts, mind uploading—the transfer of a biological brain to a silicon-based operating system—will be as common as laser eye surgery is today.
It’s the kind of scheme you expect to encounter in science fiction, not an Ivy League laboratory. But little is conventional about Hayworth, 41, a veteran of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a self-described “outlandishly futuristic thinker.” While a graduate student at the University of Southern California, he built a machine in his garage that changed the way brain tissue is cut and imaged in electron microscopes. The combination of technical smarts and entrepreneurial gumption earned him a grant from the McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience, a subsidiary of the McKnight Foundation, and an invitation to Harvard, where he stayed, on a postdoctoral fellowship, until April.
To understand why Hayworth wants to plastinate his own brain you have to understand his field—connectomics, a new branch of neuroscience. A connectome is a complete map of a brain’s neural circuitry. Some scientists believe that human connectomes will one day explain consciousness, memory, emotion, even diseases like autism, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s—the cures for which might be akin to repairing a wiring error. In 2010 the National Institutes of Health established the Human Connectome Project, a $40-million, multi-institution effort to study the field’s medical potential.
Among some connectomics scholars, there is a grand theory: We are our connectomes. Our unique selves—the way we think, act, feel—is etched into the wiring of our brains. Unlike genomes, which never change, connectomes are forever being molded and remolded by life experience. Sebastian Seung, a professor of computational neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a prominent proponent of the grand theory, describes the connectome as the place where “nature meets nurture.”
Hayworth takes this theory a few steps further. He looks at the growth of connectomics—especially advances in brain preservation, tissue imaging, and computer simulations of neural networks—and sees something else: a cure for death. In a new paper in the International Journal of Machine Consciousness, he argues that mind uploading is an “enormous engineering challenge” but one that can be accomplished without “radically new science and technologies.”
That is not a prevailing view. Many scholars regard Hayworth’s belief in immortality as, at best, an eccentric diversion, too silly to take seriously. “I’m going to pretend you didn’t ask me that,” J. Anthony Movshon, a professor of neural science and psychology at New York University, snapped when I raised the subject.
But to Hayworth, science is about overturning expectations: “If 100 years ago someone said that we’d have satellites in orbit and little boxes on our desks that can communicate across the world, they would have sounded very outlandish.” One hundred years from now, he believes, our descendants will not understand how so many of us failed for so long to embrace immortality. In an unpublished essay, “Killed by Bad Philosophy,” he writes, “Our grandchildren will say that we died not because of heart disease, cancer, or stroke, but instead that we died pathetically out of ignorance and superstition”—by which he means the belief that there is something fundamentally unknowable about consciousness, and that therefore it can never be replicated on a computer.
Hayworth knows he’s courting ridicule. Talk of immortality has long been banished to the margins of intellectual life, to specialized circles on the Internet and places like Scottsdale, Ariz., home of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a focal point of the cryonics movement. (Hayworth has been a member of Alcor, if a skeptical one, since the mid-1990s.) In the popular mind, the quest to defeat death has become the stuff of late-night comedy (if you don’t know about Ted Williams’s head, Google it), not serious science.
So where does that leave Hayworth, an iconoclast with legitimate research credentials? Academe is an uneasy fit. His ideas are taboo and often ignored. (Just try getting a grant to study mind uploading.) Harvard has distanced itself from Hayworth, and a colleague at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm Research Campus, in Ashburn, Va.—a center of connectomics scholarship, where Hayworth recently started as a senior scientist—told him that his interest in brain preservation and mind uploading is “a significant negative,” to the point that it delayed his hiring.
But Hayworth seems unfazed, confident in the march of progress. “We’ve had a lot of breakthroughs—genomics, space flight—but those are trivial in comparison to mind uploading,” he told me recently. “This will be earth-shattering because it will open up possibilities we’ve never dreamed of.” Perhaps sensing my skepticism, he added, “Other neuroscientists will come around when they see the massive amounts of connectome data that we’re generating, and they’ll say, ‘Wow, the future has arrived.’”….
It took seven months of tough bargaining with Islamabad for the United States to get Pakistan to reopen its border with Afghanistan to NATO supply trucks. Until the border closed last year, about 5,000 trucks a month had plowed their way from the Pakistani port city of Karachi, through dusty Baluchistan, around the Taliban-infested switchbacks of the Khyber Pass, and on to Bagram, Kandahar, and other NATO logistical hubs in Afghanistan. That came to a halt in November, after a U.S. air raid mistakenly killed 24 Pakistani soldiers and Islamabad retaliated by suspending NATO traffic. It would reopen the border, it said, only if the United States both apologized and agreed to pay much higher transport fees for the NATO trucks traversing its territory. Islamabad eventually dropped the fee demand, but it did induce U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to say sorry.
After the November shutdown of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, NATO reoriented its supply routes to northern Afghanistan through a series of roads in Central Asia, which make up what is known as the Northern Distribution Network (NDN). The seven-month total dependence on the northern transportation routes, which are circuitous and treacherous, cost the United States hundreds of millions of dollars and much heartache. Far from being a thing of the past, the troubles associated with the NDN are here to stay: even after the reopening of the border with Pakistan, use of the NDN will remain crucial as NATO starts to ship home equipment as part of the drawdown this summer.
By the end of 2014, NATO needs to remove about 100,000 shipping containers full of equipment and 50,000 wheeled vehicles from Afghanistan; it will leave behind any unused fuel. NATO officials point out that in order for all International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) military equipment to be removed from Afghanistan in time, a container would have to leave the country every seven minutes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, starting now — a tough order. Many of those containers and vehicles will have to travel along the northern route. For its part, ISAF is still counting on removing at least a third of its cargo in Afghanistan through Central Asia.
The spine of the NDN is a jagged, potholed road that leaves Kabul for Kunduz, the capital city of Kunduz province, which borders Tajikistan, and then continues on to Central Asia. The privilege of using the route does not come cheap: the United States and ISAF recently renegotiated their transshipment agreements with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan to permit two-way transit of non-lethal supplies (i.e., not armored vehicles or guns) through their territories. In addition, all three now allow transport planes carrying NATO soldiers to enter their airspace. Negotiations still continue, however, on a host of unresolved issues, such as expanded access to airspace and airports, fees, alternate routes, and the removal of restrictions on what type of military cargo can be transported. Meanwhile, the United States is also locked in talks with Russia about similar issues, such as the establishment of an air hub for Europe-bound cargo planes. Like its Central Asian neighbors, Russia has agreed to allow non-lethal equipment to be transported through its territory into Afghanistan, but NATO would like to see the agreement expanded.
In return for permitting tens of thousands of vehicles carrying ISAF military equipment to transverse their territory, the Central Asian countries have demanded, and received, huge payoffs. ISAF has not released details of its most recent accords with them, from June 2012. But, previously, each truck traveling through their territory had cost around $1,250 — about five times what Pakistan had charged. And Uzbekistan, for example, has sought a 50 percent surcharge on the use of its major rail link to Afghanistan.
In congressional testimony in June, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta estimated that, all in all, routing supplies through the northern pass adds about $100 million a month to the United States’ Afghanistan war tab. Perhaps that is why, before Clinton said the magic words in July, the Pentagon had requested that Congress reallocate an additional $2.1 billion to cover the costs of the greater reliance on the NDN. And, despite Pakistan’s reopening of its border, the Pentagon, as of mid-July 2012, did not anticipate reducing the requested reallocation.
The NDN is not only expensive, it is precarious. Much of the asphalt that the Turkish government paid to lay down in 2005 has crumbled away. For long stretches, the road is little more than an obstacle course of enormous puddles, mud traps, and dirt gorges, many too big for an unlucky car to drive out of. Although the road was constructed with one lane of traffic moving in each direction, drivers use it as if it were a four-lane freeway. They pass each other on all sides and joust for the right of way on the cliffs of the Hindu Kush. A breakdown or collision paralyzes the path for days. Not surprisingly, the ravines beside the road are littered with the skeletons of trucks and cars. In certain parts, remnants of vehicles that toppled over the edge appear every hundred meters or so. Many of them are fresh; others date back to the 1980s, when the mujahideen made sport of blowing up Soviet oil tankers as they crawled along the very same path.
About halfway between Kabul and Kunduz lies the Salang Pass. NATO trucks have no option but to drive through this tunnel, but, at an elevation of over 12,000 feet, it is a deathtrap. Built in 1964 by the Soviets, it was designed to handle 1,000 vehicles a day. During the recent closure of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, some 10,000 tried to jostle their way through every 24 hours. Some get stalled for days. Carbon monoxide, and gas fumes, fill the air; if one of the fuel trucks were to blow, the others would all go with it. Exactly that happened in 1982, and, reportedly, some 900 Russians and Afghans were killed.
As if fumes and fire weren’t enough, the tunnel is also plagued by water and ice. The ceiling and walls were never completed, so they leak. As winter snows come, the tunnel becomes one gigantic mud bath, opening onto a cliff-side ice rink on the other side. Given the extreme weather conditions and the fact that the road carries about four times the weight that a highway is supposed to withstand, it is unlikely that any pavement that Turkey or the United States or any of its allies could lay would last. The patching that ISAF did in 2010 is already long gone. Even so, ISAF is discussing repaving at least part of the road, at the cost of more than $60 million…
In the weeks and months before the U.S. Supreme Court delivered its ruling on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, some pundits dubbed the lawsuit “the case of the century.” Whatever the Court decided, commentators and activists on both sides of the aisle thought that it would resolve the fate of President Barack Obama’s health-care reforms. The ruling would reverberate throughout the worlds of law and politics.
Instead, the Court surprised everyone. A five-member majority led by Chief Justice John Roberts upheld the ACA on grounds that few Court watchers had anticipated. The case may well find its way into the annals of the law. But in the end, Roberts’ opinion removed the Court from the debate about health care and put the conversation back in the realm of politics.
BUYING THE BROCCOLI ARGUMENT
The debate over health care began when Obama promised to make health insurance affordable for all. To succeed, he needed to cut a deal with the health-care companies, which had long opposed such reform. In return for an expansion of the pool of insurance subscribers to cover their costs, the insurance companies agreed to neither deny coverage to those with preexisting conditions nor impose higher rates on them. To achieve this compromise, the Obama administration devised what would become known as the individual mandate: the government would require Americans to either purchase health insurance or pay a set amount to the U.S. Treasury. Republicans, opposed to such an expansion of government, fiercely resisted the bill in Congress and, once it passed, promised a full-scale campaign to overturn it. Within weeks of the bill’s passage, Republican attorneys general in 26 states had launched a series of legal challenges to the legislation.
In court, opponents of the ACA presented two primary claims. First, they argued that the individual mandate exceeded the bounds of the commerce clause, the power given to Congress by the Constitution to regulate interstate commerce. The states also targeted the legality of the ACA’s extension of Medicaid, a move that would cover many who were previously uninsured and deny existing Medicaid funding to states that did not comply.
Initially, few in the mainstream legal community took either claim seriously. And with good reason: neither had strong support in existing judicial precedent or practice. Since the New Deal, the Supreme Court has given Congress vast authority to regulate commerce. In 1942, the Court unanimously held in Wickard v. Filburn that Congress could forbid a farmer from growing wheat on his farm for his own consumption. Congress had set out to stabilize wheat prices, and if all farmers began growing their own wheat instead of buying it, the justices reasoned, then demand would drop and so would prices. The Court thus recognized that even the most local economic decisions could affect integrated interstate markets, and it empowered Congress to regulate them.
Given the logic of Wickard v. Filburn, the ACA seemed well within the bounds of Congress’ powers. Under the existing law prior to the ACA, those who could not afford medical care ended up receiving it at emergency rooms for free. The costs were then passed onto everyone else in the form of higher insurance premiums. According to a study by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, in 2008, federal and state governments paid $43 billion to health-care providers to cover the uninsured. Many experts agreed that skyrocketing health-care costs were damaging the U.S. economy. Like the farmer’s decision to opt out of the interstate market for wheat, the failure of millions to obtain health insurance was harming the interstate health-care market.
The ability of Congress to attach conditions to federal spending grants, such as Medicaid, seemed similarly invincible. As much as the Supreme Court has recognized the expansive power of Congress to regulate commerce, it has granted the legislative branch even more leeway to tax and spend on behalf of what the Constitution refers to as “the general welfare.” Congress regularly adds all sorts of conditions to spending grants, giving recipients, including the states, the choice to accept those conditions or not take the money. Since the New Deal, the Supreme Court has not invalidated a single spending condition on constitutional grounds.
This all seemed uncontroversial and settled, until a powerful idea took hold. Randy Barnett, a law professor at Georgetown University and longtime champion of limiting the scope of Congress’ power under the commerce clause, devised a challenge: although the legislative branch had sweeping power to regulate existing markets, he argued, that power did not extend to forcing people to participate in those markets. For the first time in history, Barnett and his conservative colleagues contended, Congress had tried to regulate market “inactivity” rather than “activity.” In their view, people without health insurance had made a reasoned decision not to participate in the market, and Congress could not compel them to join it. The Tea Party and its fellow travelers took up Barnett’s argument, using broccoli as a rallying cry: if Congress could make Americans buy health insurance to prop up the market and improve public health, it could make Americans buy and eat broccoli, too.
To the surprise of many scholars, the legal case against the ACA soon gained momentum. Several federal district courts — all led by judges appointed by Republican presidents — overturned the mandate. The Obama administration initially attempted to slow the process down, but after a federal appellate court in Atlanta ruled against the ACA, the White House decided to bring the case immediately to the Supreme Court. Both Republicans and Democrats thought that the outcome of the Court’s ruling would have profound implications for the 2012 presidential election, and both sides hunkered down for a bitter post-decision fight.
Once it became clear that the Supreme Court would decide the health-care case before this year’s presidential election, the justices found themselves caught in a partisan wrangle. The intensity of the moment was reminiscent of the turmoil during Bush v. Gore, which decided the 2000 presidential election, or during the Court-packing controversy of the 1930s, when President Franklin Roosevelt encountered so many challenges to his New Deal from conservative justices that he proposed filling the Supreme Court with additional justices to get his way (the Court ultimately caved instead). From the start, the political battle over health care loomed over the ACA case and what its outcome would mean.
The Court had become deeply politicized well before the health-care case. Liberals, wary of the Court’s rightward turn with the addition of Roberts and Samuel Alito, felt their fears were justified after the Court voted in January 2010 to overturn campaign finance restrictions in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. When Elena Kagan replaced David Souter on the bench later that year, the Court became truly split along party lines: the five conservative justices had all been appointed by Republican presidents, and the four on the left, by Democrats…