We need to stop worrying and trust our robot researchers

The work of Francis Crick and James Watson gives us a vision of what's to come.

It’s now 60 years since the publication of the structure of DNA. As we celebrate the past, the work of Francis Crick and James Watson also gives us a vision of what’s to come. Their paper was not subjected to peer review, today’s gold standard for the validation of scientific research. Instead, it was discussed briefly over a lunch at the Athenaeum Club. In an editorial celebrating the anniversary, the journal Nature, which originally published the research, points out that this is “unthinkable now”.

However, peer review has always been somewhat patchy and it is becoming ever more difficult. This is the age of “big data”, in which scientists make their claims based on analysis of enormous amounts of information, often carried out by custom-written software. The peer review process, done on an unpaid, voluntary basis in researchers’ spare time, doesn’t have the capacity to go through all the data-analysis techniques. Reviewers have to rely on their intuition.

There are many instances of this leading science up the garden path but recently we were treated to a spectacular example in economics. In 2010, Harvard professors published what quickly became one of the most cited papers of the year. Simply put, it said that if your gross public debt is more than 90 per cent of your national income, you are going to struggle to achieve any economic growth.

Dozens of newspapers quoted the research, the Republican Party built its budget proposal on it and no small number of national leaders used it to justify their preferred policies. Which makes it all the more depressing that it has been unmasked as completely wrong.

The problem lay in poor data-handling. The researchers left out certain data points, gave questionable weight to parts of the data set and – most shocking of all – made a mistake in the programming of their Excel spreadsheet.

The Harvard paper was not peer-reviewed before publication. It was only when the researchers shared software and raw data with peers sceptical of the research that the errors came to light.

The era of big data in science will stand or fall on such openness and collaboration. It used to be that collaboration arose from the need to create data. Crick and Watson collaborated with Maurice Wilkins to gather the data they needed – from Rosalind Franklin’s desk drawer, without her knowledge or permission. That was what gave them their pivotal insight. However, as Mark R Abbott of Oregon State University puts it, “We are no longer data-limited but insight-limited.”

Gaining insights from the data flood will require a different kind of science from Crick’s and Watson’s and it may turn out to be one to which computers and laboratorybased robots are better suited than human beings. In another 60 years, we may well be looking back at an era when silicon scientists made the most significant discoveries.

A robot working in a lab at Aberystwyth University made the first useful computergenerated scientific contribution in 2009, in the field of yeast genomics. It came up with a hypothesis, performed experiments and reached a conclusion, then had its work published in the journal Science. Since then, computers have made further inroads. So far, most (not all) have been checked by human beings but that won’t be possible for long. Eventually, we’ll be taking their insights on trust and intuition stretched almost to breaking point – just as we did with Crick and Watson.

President Obama inspects a robot built in Virginia. Photograph: Getty Images.

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.

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The internet makes writing as innovative as speech

When a medium acquires new functions, it will need to be adapted by means of creating new forms.

Many articles on how the internet has changed language are like linguistic versions of the old Innovations catalogue, showcasing the latest strange and exciting products of our brave new digital culture: new words (“rickroll”); new uses of existing words (“trend” as a verb); abbreviations (smh, or “shaking my head”); and graphic devices (such as the much-hyped “new language” of emojis). Yet these formal innovations are merely surface (and in most cases ephemeral) manifestations of a deeper change a change in our relationship with the written word.

I first started to think about this at some point during the Noughties, after I noticed the odd behaviour of a friend’s teenage daughter. She was watching TV, alone and in silence, while her thumbs moved rapidly over the keys of her mobile phone. My friend explained that she was chatting with a classmate: they weren’t in the same physical space, but they were watching the same programme, and discussing it in a continuous exchange of text messages. What I found strange wasn’t the activity itself. As a teenage girl in the 1970s, I, too, was capable of chatting on the phone for hours to someone I’d spent all day with at school. The strange part was the medium: not spoken language, but written text.

In 1997, research conducted for British Telecom found that face-to-face speech accounted for 86 per cent of the average Briton’s communications, and telephone speech for 12 per cent. Outside education and the (white-collar or professional) workplace, most adults did little writing. Two decades later, it’s probably still true that most of us talk more than we write. But there’s no doubt we are making more use of writing, because so many of us now use it in our social interactions. We text, we tweet, we message, we Facebook; we have intense conversations and meaningful relationships with people we’ve never spoken to.

Writing was not designed to serve this purpose. Its original function was to store information in a form that did not depend on memory for its transmission and preservation. It acquired other functions, of the social kind, among others; but even in the days when “snail mail” was less snail-like (in large cities in the early 1900s there were five postal deliveries a day), “conversations” conducted by letter or postcard fell far short of the rapid back-and-forth that ­today’s technology makes possible.

When a medium acquires new functions, it will need to be adapted by means of creating new forms. Many online innovations are motivated by the need to make written language do a better job of two things in particular: communicating tone, and expressing individual or group identity. The rich resources speech offers for these purposes (such as accent, intonation, voice quality and, in face-to-face contexts, body language) are not reproducible in text-based communication. But users of digital media have found ways to exploit the resources that are specific to text, such as spelling, punctuation, font and spacing.

The creative use of textual resources started early on, with conventions such as capital letters to indicate shouting and the addition of smiley-face emoticons (the ancestors of emojis) to signal humorous or sarcastic intent, but over time it has become more nuanced and differentiated. To those in the know, a certain respelling (as in “smol” for “small”) or the omission of standard punctuation (such as the full stop at the end of a message) can say as much about the writer’s place in the virtual world as her accent would say about her location in the real one.

These newer conventions have gained traction in part because of the way the internet has developed. As older readers may recall, the internet was once conceptualised as an “information superhighway”, a vast and instantly accessible repository of useful stuff. But the highway was a one-way street: its users were imagined as consumers rather than producers. Web 2.0 changed that. Writers no longer needed permission to publish: they could start a blog, or write fan fiction, without having to get past the established gatekeepers, editors and publishers. And this also freed them to deviate from the linguistic norms that were strictly enforced in print – to experiment or play with grammar, spelling and punctuation.

Inevitably, this has prompted complaints that new digital media have caused literacy standards to plummet. That is wide of the mark: it’s not that standards have fallen, it’s more that in the past we rarely saw writing in the public domain that hadn’t been edited to meet certain standards. In the past, almost all linguistic innovation (the main exception being formal or technical vocabulary) originated in speech and appeared in print much later. But now we are seeing traffic in the opposite direction.

Might all this be a passing phase? It has been suggested that as the technology improves, many text-based forms of online communication will revert to their more “natural” medium: speech. In some cases this seems plausible (in a few it’s already happening). But there are reasons to think that speech will not supplant text in all the new domains that writing has conquered.

Consider my friend’s daughter and her classmate, who chose to text when they could have used their phones to talk. This choice reflected their desire for privacy: your mother can’t listen to a text-based conversation. Or consider the use of texting to perform what politeness theorists call “face-threatening acts”, such as sacking an employee or ending an intimate relationship. This used to be seen as insensitive, but my university students now tell me they prefer it – again, because a text is read in private. Your reaction to being dumped will not be witnessed by the dumper: it allows you to retain your dignity, and gives you time to craft your reply.

Students also tell me that they rarely speak on the phone to anyone other than their parents without prearranging it. They see unsolicited voice calls as an imposition; text-based communication is preferable (even if it’s less efficient) because it doesn’t demand the recipient’s immediate and undivided attention. Their guiding principle seems to be: “I communicate with whom I want, when I want, and I respect others’ right to do the same.”

I’ll confess to finding this new etiquette off-putting: it seems ungenerous, unspontaneous and self-centred. But I can also see how it might help people cope with the overwhelming and intrusive demands of a world where you’re “always on”. (In her book Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World, Naomi Baron calls it “volume control”, a way of turning down the incessant noise.) As with the other new practices I’ve mentioned, it’s a strategic adaptation, exploiting the inbuilt capabilities of technology, but in ways that owe more to our own desires and needs than to the conscious intentions of its designers. Or, to put it another way (and forgive me if I adapt a National Rifle Association slogan): technologies don’t change language, people do.

Deborah Cameron is Professor of Language and Communication at the University of Oxford and a fellow of Worcester College

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times