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The Harvard paper was not peer-reviewed before publication.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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Amazon's unlikely role in the Calais relief efforts

Campaigners are using Amazon's wishlist feature - more commonly used for weddings and birthdays - to rally supplies for the thousands camped at Calais. 

Today and yesterday, relief efforts have sprung up across the web and IRL following the publication of shocking photos of a drowned refugee child. People are collecting second hand clothes and food, telling David Cameron to offer refuge, and generally funneling support and supplies to the thousands in Calais and across Europe who have been forced from their homes by conflict in Syria and elsewhere. 

One campaign, however, stuck out in its use of technology to crowdsource supplies for the Calais camp. An Amazon wishlist page - more familiar as a way to circulate birthday lists or extravagant wedding registries - has been set up as part of the  #KentforCalais and #HelpCalais campaigns, and is collecting donations of clothes, food, toiletries, tents and sleeping supplies. 

Judging by the Twitter feed of writer and presenter Dawn O'Porter, one of the list's organisers, shoppers have come thick and fast. Earlier today, another user tweeted that there were only six items left on the list - because items had sold out, or the requested number had already been purchased - and O'Porter tweeted shortly after that another list had been made. Items ordered through the list will be delivered to organisers and than transported to Calais in a truck on 17 September. 

This, of course, is only one campaign among many, but the repurposing of an Amazon feature designed to satiate first world materialism as a method of crisis relief seems to symbolise the spirit of the efforts as a whole. Elsewhere, Change.org petitions, clothes drives organised via Facebook, and Twitter momentum (which, in this case, seems to stretch beyond the standard media echo chamber) have allowed internet users to pool their anger, funds and second-hand clothes in the space of 24 hours. It's worth noting that Amazon will profit from any purchases made through the wishlist, but that doesn't totally undermine its usefulness as a way to quickly and easily donate supplies. 

Last year, I spoke to US writer and urbanist Adam Greenfield, who was involved New York's Occupy Sandy movement (which offered relief after after hurricane Sandy hit New York in 2011) and he emphasised the centrality of technology to the relief effort in New York:

Occupy Sandy relied completely on a Googledocs spreadsheet and an Amazon wishlist.  There was a social desire that catalysed uses of technology through it and around it. And if that technology didn't exist it might not have worked the way it did. 

So it's worth remembering, even as Amazon suffers what may be the worst PR disaster in its history and Silicon Valley's working culture is revealed to be even worse than we thought, that technology, in the right hands, can help us make the world a better place. 

You can buy items on the Amazon wishlist here or see our list of other ways to help here

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