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The Harvard paper was not peer-reviewed before publication.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 Fake Kids of Instagram? Behind the backlash against the internet famous

Bloggers and vloggers are coming under fire for seeming inauthentic online. 

When beauty blogger Amelia Liana went to the Taj Mahal, there wasn’t another tourist in sight. The ivory-white world heritage site was deserted of all but Liana and a flock of swooping white birds overhead. Liana stood in front of the long reflecting pool that stretches out from the iconic building and stared off into the distance. It was a rare and beautiful moment of solitude at one of the seven wonders of the world.

At least, according to Liana’s Instagram.

As a blogger and YouTuber, Liana is no stranger to online hate. Yet over the last month, social media has been ablaze with individuals accusing Liana of Photoshopping, editing, and faking her pictures. In particular, critics claim she is cutting out pictures of herself and pasting them onto separate pictures of locations and landmarks. Some claim she edited out the tourists in her Taj Mahal picture, while others allege she Photoshopped herself on to a picture of the site.

Liana has released video footage showing that she attended the locations in question, but her critics are not convinced that her corresponding Instagram pictures are entirely authentic.

 A still from Liana's video of her India trip

In one example, lifestyle blogger and masters student Ellie Dickinson, 22, claimed Liana had Photoshopped a picture of an ice-cream in New York City. In the picture, Liana holds up a specialist ice-cream cone from Taiyaki, a shop that Dickinson claims is a twenty minute drive from the street in Liana’s picture. To her, it appears as if Liana took a picture of her ice-cream in one location and then edited it onto another, creating a composite to two images.

These criticisms of Liana's Instagrams are not isolated. She has also been accused of Photoshopping a fake sunset into a plane window and, in one bizarre example, editing a photograph taken at Heathrow Terminal 5 so that the background features planes in Heathrow Terminal 2. In the most questioned photograph, Liana appears to have Photoshopped her bed so it is in front of a picturesque London view. It is hard to prove or disprove which of Liana's photos are faked (or indeed whether any are), though many online are sharing the accusations.

“Because I work with Photoshop a lot, I zoomed in on one of her pictures because the grain and sharpness didn't seem right and went from there,” explains Dickinson, who says she thought this incident was “the icing on top of the cake” of blogger and Instagram fakery. Dickinson didn't intend for hate to be sent Liana's way, but urges people to be more questioning of what they see online. 

“Instagram is always a slightly fictionalised image of our lives but too many people believe it's the reality," she says. In her opinion: “We all adjust contrast and lighting but she's taken it a step too far.” 

Fakery on Instagram is nothing new. In May, the Instagrammer and Photographer Sara Melotti told me about the “Instagram mafia”, explaining that many travel bloggers visit the same spot to get the perfect photo, but then leave without touring the area. In October 2015, Instagram model Essena O’Neill quit the site, branding social media “contrived” and rewriting the captions on her images to explain how long it took to take a photo, or whether she was paid by a brand to pose with a product.

Yet the accusations against Liana seem to be more extreme. Though the star has video footage illustrating she really did visit the locations on her Instagram, editing pictures is a grey area. “I keep wondering how you are the only one in shot! It's always so busy there,” reads a comment on Liana’s photograph of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence.

Things become more problematic when money is involved as Liana – like many Instagrammers and vloggers – is often paid by brands to advertise products on her social media. In the much-maligned London bed photograph, Liana is advertising the beauty brand Glam Glow. “Got the Glam Glow setter right after I saw it in your last Video - so far I love it! This picture totally blows my mind!! ❤” wrote one commenter. In many of her posts, Liana references hotels she is staying in, which could in turn influence her followers' booking decisions.

“I think the problem of dramatically engineering Photoshopped Instagram posts is that it encourages an unobtainable lifestyle,” says Laura, a 24-year-old beauty blogger who mocked Liana’s posts on Twitter when the fakery accusations emerged. Laura does not believe Liana should be “attacked” for Photoshopping, but does worry about the trend for fakery in the industry.

“Instagram, by nature, encourages us to post a filtered image focusing on the highlights of our life but there's a difference when Instagrammers choose to create a fantasy and pass that off as reality. When you factor in money and young influential fans as well, I think such a level of delusion edges towards being fraudulent.”

Last week, the YouTuber Lele Pons was accused of lying in an Instagram post in which she claimed to have cut off her hair to donate to charity. Emily Cutshall, a 17-year-old high school student from California discovered that in the picture, Pons was actually holding up hair extensions, passing them off as her real hair. She tweeted her discovery and gained over 76,000 retweets.

“I felt like I needed to get the word out,” explains Cutshall, who says she was “upset” that the star could mislead followers about contributing to a good cause. “The fact that Lele had lied about her donation was not something that I thought she should get away with.”

Since going viral, Cutshall has used her Twitter presence to encourage others to donate their hair. Though she felt guilty about directing negative attention to Pons, she believes it is important that more people “stand up for what [they] believe in and question the integrity of others”.

“If you see someone being dishonest about something you think is important, whether it's an internet personality or a stranger you met five minutes ago, you shouldn't be afraid to take a stand against that,” she says. Lele Pons later tweeted that she had intended to donate her hair before realising wig charities don’t accept dyed hair, but she did not explain why the hair in her photograph appears to be extensions.

The drama around Pons and Liana is part of a wider trend of “exposing” celebrities – both from social and traditional media. In 2016 #TaylorSwiftIsOverParty trended after her ex, Calvin Harris, ranted about her orchestrating media stories. Yet though the trend of “sipping tea” (that is, sharing rumours and enjoying gossip) can make exposing internet celebrities seem flippant, it is important to call out online fakery. Though a Photoshopped sunset is not as damaging as the “fake news” spread during and since the United States Presidential Election, it is still a worrying aspect of the erosion of authenticity online.

 

Headed to my favourite city today with @yslbeauty So excited to be back! #MonParis #Paris #TourEiffel

A post shared by Amelia Liana (@amelialiana) on

Amelia Liana did not respond to a request for comment and nor did her agency. Since 2015, she has been open and transparent about the fact she adds filters and changes the contrast to “play with” her pictures and make them appear more pink, but she has never confirmed the allegations of copying and pasting photographs of herself onto different backgrounds, nor adding in fake elements. It is hard to say with absolute certainty that her pictures are indeed faked, but the backlash demonstrates a thirst for reality and authenticity in an online world of posing and filters. 

In many recent captions on her Instagram photos, Liana has now taken to stating she visits popular attractions at 6 or 7am to get pictures without tourists in the background. In recent pictures, the birds that so frequently flew across the landscape in her old photographs are nowhere to be seen.

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

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