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The Harvard paper was not peer-reviewed before publication.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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Doing a Radiohead: how to disappear online

The band has performed an online Houdini in advance of its ninth album – but it’s harder than it looks. 

At the beginning of May, the band Radiohead’s web presence – well, its Twitter, Facebook, and website, at least – went offline.

Lead singer Thom Yorke has repeatedly criticised streaming, and the future of online music in general, and it's clear that his opinion fed into this month's decision to reject social media in favour of sending individual cards to the band's fans in the post. 

However, it’s also a clever publicity stunt in the run up to the rumoured release of the band's ninth album, since it plays into a growing paranoia around the lives we live online, and quite how permanent they are. In reality, though, Radiohead has done a pretty terrible job of disappearing from the internet. Its Facebook and Twitter accounts still exist, and widely available caching services actually mean you can still see Radiohead.com if you so wish. 

These are the steps you’d need to take to really disappear from the internet (and never be found).

Delete your acccounts

Radiohead may have deleted its posts on Facebook and Twitter, but its accounts – and, therefore user data – still exist on the sites. If this was a serious move away from an online presence, as opposed to a stunt, you’d want to delete your account entirely.

The site justdelete.me rates sites according to how easy they make it to delete your data. If you only hold accounts with “easy” rated sites, like Airbnb, Goodreads and Google, you’ll be able to delete your account through what justdelete.me calls a “simple process”. JustDelete.me also links you directly to the (sometimes difficult-to-find) account deletion pages.

Failing that, delete what you can

If, however, you’re a member of sites that don’t allow you to delete your account like Blogger, Couchsurfing or Wordpress, you may be stuck with your account for good. However, you should at least be able to delete posts and any biographical information on your profile.

If this bothers you, but you want to create an account with these sites, Justdelete.me also offers a “fake identity generator” which spits out fake names and other details to use in the signup process.

Go to Google

Search results are the hardest thing to erase, especially if they’re on sites which published your details without your permission. However, thanks to the European Commission “Right to be forgotten” ruling in 2014, you can now ask that certain search results be deleted using this online form.  

Ditch your smartphone

Smartphones tend to track your location and communicate with app and web servers constantly. For true privacy, you’d want to either disconnect your phone from all accounts (including iCloud or Google) or else get a basic phone which does not connect to the internet.

Give out your passwords

The artist Mark Farid decided in October 2015 to live without a digital footprint until April 2016, but was aghast when he realised quite how often our data is collected by our devices. As a result, he decided to live without bank accounts, use a phone without internet connectivity, and use an unregistered Oyster.

When I saw him speak at an event just before his off-grid experiment was due to begin, he announced that he would also be handing out the passwords to all his online accounts to the public. The kind of “bad data” which randomly hacked accounts would show would actually make him less traceable than a radio silence – a bit like how words written over other words mask them more than simply erasing them or scribbling on them would.

Accept that it probably won’t work

Even if you managed all this, the likelihood is that some of your daily activities would still leave a trace online. Most jobs require internet activity, if not an internet presence. Bank accounts are, let's face it, fairly necessary. And even Radiohead will, I’m willing to bet, reappear on the internet soon after their album arrives.

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.