Why not? Robots dancing in Madrid's robot museum. Photo: Gerard Julien/AFP/Getty Images
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Nuclear armaments? Global warming? All hail our robot overlords!

I, for one, accept our new robot politicians.

hanks to Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute and the Global Challenges Foundation, we now know the 12 ways in which humanity is most likely to go up in smoke. Their proposals for mitigating the threats (the usual suspects: asteroids, pandemics, and so on) make for interesting reading. The team makes ten recommendations, such as improving early-warning systems, increasing focus on the more extreme scenarios and looking at the possibility of establishing a global risk organisation. But it may have missed a trick.

One threat on the list is artificial intelligence (AI): robot minds capable of rising up and killing us all. Yet the discussion makes clear that politicians are also a big threat. Perhaps we could engineer AI to rise up and implement sensible decisions that will save, rather than threaten, humankind.

The AI threat is a popular notion. Stephen Hawking has pronounced on a few occasions that we should fear AI and be extremely careful about the kind of intelligence we create. The robots, he says, may well turn against us. It is a measure of Hawking’s cultural cachet that he can get away with this kind of speculation. There is very little evidence – perhaps none, outside science fiction – to support his claim.

AI isn’t very good at anything yet, let alone taking over the world. A brief conversation with Siri, the iPhone’s “knowledge navigator”, will allay all fears of a robot uprising.
And although the capabilities of Google’s self-driving cars are impressive, let’s remember how good we are at driving. Every day, human beings make millions of journeys that rely on complex decision-making algorithms operating at lightning speed in the brain.

Not only are our brains agile enough to do this, but they have ensured that the computers and AI that we invent are placed in control of cars only within an extremely tight regulatory framework. So we’re not stupid, after all.

Yet our minds are also naive and easily panicked. That is why we can be persuaded, with very little evidence, that a silicon-based creation of our making could become an existential threat.

This hair-trigger facility for suspicion and peril-spotting is part of our evolutionary heritage. It is the mental equipment that enabled us to survive in environments full of predators. But it is also what makes lasting international agreements so hard to reach, creating threats that are far more dangerous than AI.

We can focus on Ukraine, to take a topical example, but zoom out and we’ll see that the overall threat from politicians is huge. That’s why the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has adjusted its “Doomsday Clock”, a measure of the imminence of our demise as a species. In January, the time on it was moved forward: we are now at “three minutes to midnight”. The Bulletin warns that, with the governments of the US and Russia racing to modernise their nuclear arsenals, “International leaders are failing to perform their most important duty – ensuring and preserving the health and vitality of human civilisation.”

And it’s not just nuclear Armageddon. There are slow deaths on the horizon, too. Rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were identified as a possible threat to humanity decades ago, yet little of consequence has been done about this.

It doesn’t seem to be within our capabilities to find a lasting solution to these kinds of problems. Perhaps we should encourage AI researchers to forget self-driving cars and focus on self-driving nations: a political intelligence that can steer us through dangerous times. When you consider the situation we have now, would robot overlords really be so scary? 

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Still hanging

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Clickbaiting terror: what it’s like to write viral news after a tragedy

Does the viral news cycle callously capitalise on terrorism, or is it allowing a different audience to access important news and facts?

On a normal day, Alex* will write anywhere between five to ten articles. As a content creator for a large viral news site, they [Alex is speaking under the condition of strict anonymity, meaning their gender will remain unidentified] will churn out multiple 500-word stories on adorable animals, optical illusions, and sex. “People always want to read about sexuality, numbers of sexual partners, porn habits and orgasms,” says Alex. “What is important is making the content easily-digestible and engaging.”

Alex is so proficient at knowing which articles will perform well that they frequently “seek stories that fit a certain template”. Though the word “clickbait” conjures up images of cute cat capers, Alex says political stories that “pander to prejudices” generate a large number of page views for the site. Many viral writers know how to tap into such stories so their takes are shared widely – which explains the remarkably similar headlines atop many internet articles. “This will restore your faith in humanity,” could be one; “This one weird trick will change your life…” another. The most cliché example of this is now so widely mocked that it has fallen out of favour:

You’ll never believe what happened next.

When the world stops because of a tragedy, viral newsrooms don’t. After a terrorist attack such as this week’s Manchester Arena bombing, internet media sites do away with their usual stories. One day, their homepages will be filled with traditional clickbait (“Mum Sickened After Discovery Inside Her Daughter’s Easter Egg”, “This Man’s Blackhead Removal Technique Is A Complete And Utter Gamechanger”) and the next, their clickbait has taken a remarkably more tragic tone (“New Footage Shows Moment Explosion Took Place Inside Manchester Arena”, “Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Bruno Mars and More React to the Manchester Bombing”).

“When a terrorist event occurs, there’s an initial vacuum for viral news,” explains Alex. Instead of getting reporters on the scene or ringing press officers like a traditional newsroom, Alex says viral news is “conversation-driven” – meaning much of it regurgitates what is said on social media. This can lead to false stories spreading. On Tuesday, multiple viral outlets reported – based on Facebook posts and tweets – that over 50 accompanied children had been led to a nearby Holiday Inn. When BuzzFeed attempted to verify this, a spokesperson for the hotel chain denied the claim.

Yet BuzzFeed is the perfect proof that viral news and serious news can coexist under the same roof. Originally famed for its clickable content, the website is now home to a serious and prominent team of investigative journalists. Yet the site has different journalists on different beats, so that someone writes about politics and someone else about lifestyle or food.

Other organisations have a different approach. Sam* works at another large viral site (not Buzzfeed) where they are responsible for writing across topics; they explains how this works:  

“One minute you're doing something about a tweet a footballer did, the next it's the trailer for a new movie, and then bam, there's a general election being called and you have to jump on it,” they say.

Yet Sam is confident that they cover tragedy correctly. Though they feel viral news previously used to disingenuously “profiteer” off terrorism with loosely related image posts, they say their current outlet works hard to cover tragic news. “It’s not a race to generate traffic,” they say, “We won't post content that we think would generate traffic while people are grieving and in a state of shock, and we're not going to clickbait the headlines to try and manipulate it into that for obvious reasons.”

Sam goes as far as to say that their viral site in fact has higher editorial standards than “some of the big papers”. Those who might find themselves disturbed to see today’s explosions alongside yesterday’s cats will do well to remember that “traditional” journalists do not always have a great reputation for covering tragedy.

At 12pm on Tuesday, Daniel Hett tweeted that over 50 journalists had contacted him since he had posted on the site that his brother, Martyn, was missing after the Manchester attack. Hett claimed two journalists had found his personal mobile phone number, and he uploaded an image of a note a Telegraph reporter had posted through his letterbox. “This cunt found my house. I still don't know if my brother is alive,” read the accompanying caption. Tragically it turned out that Martyn was among the bomber's victims.

Long-established newspapers and magazines can clearly behave just as poorly as any newly formed media company. But although they might not always follow the rules, traditional newspapers do have them. Many writers for viral news sites have no formal ethical or journalistic training, with little guidance provided by their companies, which can cause problems when tragic news breaks.

It remains to be seen whether self-policing will be enough. Though false news has been spread, many of this week’s terror-focused viral news stories do shed light on missing people or raise awareness of how people can donate blood. Many viral news sites also have gigantic Facebook followings that far outstrip those of daily newspapers – meaning they can reach more people. In this way, Sam feels their work is important. Alex, however, is less optimistic.

“My personal view is that viral news does very little to inform people at times like this and that trending reporters probably end up feeling very small about their jobs,” says Alex. “You feel limited by the scope of your flippant style and by what the public is interested in.

“You can end up feeding the most divisive impulses of an angry public if you aren’t careful about what conversations you’re prompting. People switch onto the news around events like this and traffic rises, but ironically it’s probably when trending reporters go most into their shells and into well-worn story formats. It’s not really our time or place, and to try and make it so feels childish.”

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

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