The fastest supercomputer in the world - 2000. Your toaster probably has more computing power now. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Reviewed: At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise

Ian Steadman reviews Michael Brooks’s book on scientific discovery.

At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise 
Michael Brooks

When the Higgs boson was detected by the Large Hadron Collider in 2012, it was something of a bitter-sweet moment for many scientists. The way it provided a neat resolution to the final outstanding problem with the structure of fundamental particles was just too tidy for many. It was the last chapter of 20th-century particle physics but it did little to bring to light any new mysteries that would need solving.

Science, after all, needs mysteries and surprises, as the subtitle of Michael Brooks’s latest book, At the Edge of Uncertainty, makes clear. If you feel that we have not only picked the low-hanging fruit but also shaken the tree naked, then this journey through 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise will thoroughly disavow you of that notion.

Starting breezily and ending profoundly, it’s a look at the current state of several major scientific disciplines – from research into consciousness and computer science to epigenetics and studies in animal culture – with Brooks (who writes a weekly column for the New Statesman) communicating difficult stuff in a typically amiable and lucid manner. He doesn’t get into hard data but rather takes the reader on quick tours through the history of a science, picking up on relevant or remarkable anecdotes along the way.

One highlight is the tale of Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov, a Russian veterinarian to the tsars whose job artificially inseminating racehorses evolved in the early 20th century into an obsession with trying to breed a human/ape hybrid. This horror story was later suppressed by the Soviet Union but Brooks points out that stem-cell research necessarily requires experimenting with human/animal chimeras in the laboratory. A human embryo could accidentally form inside a mouse and, he writes, there is “the other nightmare” of “the pig – or monkey or mouse – with a human brain”.

A recurring theme is the idea that scientists often push forward with research faster than they can understand its moral or political consequences, even if it is rarely out of malice. By definition scientists need to “push at the door of what is possible” and: “The reactions of the society around them are what keep them in check.” Yet there’s a metaphysical note to these 11 topics, too. We find many of these things strange or surprising because they expose how limited our perspective, as clever apes, can be.

Supercomputers, for example, work in binary – but the universe doesn’t. Imaginations and learning are features of non-binary organisms (such as us) but our ability to create machines that can understand more than binary is stymied by “our picture of reality, [which] tends to be constrained by our conception of time and sits within just a few dimensions of space”.

In another chapter, time is revealed to be an illusion – as proven by Buddhist monks or volunteers high on magic mushrooms, observed using magnetic resonance imaging machines. It appears that we perceive it as we do only because this is the most effective survival strategy for the world in which we find ourselves.

Later, Brooks writes about quantum uncertainty and how the act of observing something on the quantum level causes it to change – but astonishingly it seems that the universe might be best understood as a computer simulation (running on God-knows-what) and that quantum uncertainty reflects our ability to “reprogramme” the world as we see it. “We become participators in the processes of the universe . . . We are in a paper-scissors-stone situation where we cannot find the logic to disentangle ourselves from the universe.”

From this perspective, consciousness is the inevitable result of a computer the size of the universe running for billions of years; Carl Sagan’s observation that “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself” was more true than he ever realised.

“The edge of uncertainty,” writes Brooks, “is not a static line, but a dynamic, ever-changing set of answers. What other way is there for humans to behave than to push at the boundaries of our knowledge and our existence – even if the act of pushing exposes our ignorance?” A curious result of reading At the Edge of Uncertainty is to come away with a net total of new ignorance, not new knowledge – but also a sense of excitement at the inevitable success of science to remedy it. 

Ian Steadman is a staff writer on science and technology at the New Statesman

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

Google Allo
Show Hide image

Google Allo: a chat app like WhatsApp – but with only a cursory consideration for your privacy

When will we stop sacrificing security for stickers of muscular bulls wiggling their butts? 

The world already has enough chat apps. When Google’s latest messaging service Allo launched this morning, a cursory glance showed us it had much the same features as Snapchat, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger before it. You can doodle on your pictures! Here’s an emoji with heart eyes! Look at this sticker of a bull twerking! Oh-by-the-way-we’re-reading-your-messages-hope-that’s-not-a-problem-bye!

Just like Facebook, Instagram, Skype, and Snapchat, the messages you send on Google Allo are not automatically end-to-end encrypted. This type of encryption – which Whatsapp began using in April – means that only you and the recipient of your message can read it and nobody in between. Messaging apps without end-to-end encryption can store your messages on their servers and access them at any time, as well as hand them over to the government if required by law. The technology academic and author John Naughton has likened it to “sending your most intimate secrets via holiday postcards” and Edward Snowden went as far as too call Google Allo “dangerous”.

But Google has a reason for not using end-to-end encryption (whether it’s a good one or not is up to you). The app includes Google Assistant, a tool which can answer your questions within any chat. In order for this to work, Google naturally needs to access your messages. Its new “Smart Reply” feature also means it reads and analyses your conversations to give you personalised auto-reply suggestions. Despite originally promising that it would only store your chat history for a limited amount of time, Google has now admitted that it will retain the data unless you personally choose to delete it. The app is actively trying to learn as much about you as possible, and then storing the data. 

But while Google Allo doesn’t automatically offer end-to-end encryption, it is receiving praise for the ability to opt in via “Incognito mode”. Once this mode is selected, you have end-to-end encryption on your messages, and you can set them to expire after a certain period of time. Wonderful. Brilliant. Article over. No more worries.

Except by placing the onus on the user to opt in to privacy (rather than opt in to Google Assistant) Google has played a trick that many companies have played before. Amazon recently launched a UK version of Echo, a “constantly listening” smart device that records and stores all of your questions, and gave users the option to mute the machine if they were concerned about privacy. But by its very nature, no one who desires this device is concerned about privacy.

And so too with Google Allo. Anyone worried about Snowden’s warning won’t download it, and those who do download it are unconcerned about, or unaware of, the lack of end-to-end encryption. Even the name, “Incognito mode” makes it sound like something that should be used for shady or saucy goings-on, instead of accepting that, by default, all of your private conversations should stay private.

Which begs the question: why don’t most of us care? Allo’s opt-in encryption is actually a vast improvement on Facebook Messenger’s complete disregard for this privacy measure, and that app has one billion active users. Are we truly so distracted by stickers and emojis that we don’t spare a thought for security? Our general apathy towards personal privacy sets a precedent for a future in which – and really, no tinfoil hats are needed here – none of our conversations are ever private.

You probably don’t care because your conversations are boring (no offence). It doesn’t worry us that the government or the police or big businesses are listening because all we’re talking about is whether to meet the lads in Nando’s at six or six-thirty. But no matter how inane our conversations, we should always protect ourselves from eavesdropping.

This is because, as the way Google search histories are used in court shows, your personal data can easily be misconstrued. If you ever did get in trouble with the police, can you really trust them to understand the private jokes between you and your friends, and not construe malicious meanings in your messages? What if third parties accessed your conversations? Companies already use our social media profiles to target advertisements towards us, but what if they scanned our messages to understand us better? Could your offhand conversation about how sick you’re feeling affect your health insurance claims? Will your message about money trouble prevent you from getting a loan?

These are all hypothetical questions, yes, but they are a path our apathy is driving us down. We’d much rather skip through the Terms and Conditions to get a new flashy feature than really scrutinise the data we’re giving away and how it’s used. Companies know this, which is why they hide behind opt-in features like “Incognito mode” and the “delete chat history” button. They can defend themselves by saying the option is there while simultaneously knowing that most people will never actually use it.

There is no easy way to get the wider world to care about privacy, but thankfully there’s probably no way to get them to care about Allo either. It’s not certain whether the messaging app will fail, but given the success of Google's previous chat apps (Talk or Hangouts, anyone?), it seems likely. Then again, none of those had a sticker of a muscular bull wiggling its butt.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.