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The Harvard paper was not peer-reviewed before publication.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.

Google Allo
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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.