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The Harvard paper was not peer-reviewed before publication.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 one where she turns into a USB stick: the worst uses of tech in films

The new film Worst Tinder Date Ever will join a long tradition of poorly-thought-through tech storylines.

News just in from Hollywood: someone is making a film about Tinder. What will they call it? Swipe Right, perhaps? I Super Like You? Some subtle allusion to the app’s small role in the plotline? Nope – according to Hollywood Reporterthe film has been christened Worst Tinder Date Ever.

With the exception of its heavily branded title (You’ve Got Gmail, anyone?), Worst Tinder Date Ever follows neatly in the tradition of writers manhandling tech into storylines. Because really, why does it matter if it was a Tinder date? This “rom com with action elements” reportedly focuses on the couple’s exploits after they meet on the app, so the dogged focus on it is presumably just a ploy to get millennial bums on cinema seats.  

Like the films on this list, it sounds like the tech in Worst Tinder Date Ever is just a byword for “modern and cool” – even as it demonstrates that the script is anything but.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

Lucy (2014)

Scarlett Johansson plays Lucy, a young woman who accidentally ingests large quantities of a new drug which promises to evolve your brain beyond normal human limits.

She evolves and evolves, gaining superhuman powers, until she hits peak human, and turns into first a supercomputer, and then a very long USB stick. USB-Lucy then texts Morgan Freeman's character on his fliphone to prove that: “I am everywhere.”

Beyond the obvious holes in this plotline (this wouldn’t happen if someone’s brain evolved; texting a phone is not a sign of omnipotence), USB sticks aren’t even that good – as Business Insider points out: “Flash drives are losing relevance because they can’t compete in speed and flexibility with cloud computing services . . . Flashdrives also can’t carry that much information.”

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

If you stare at it hard enough, the plotline in the latest Star Wars film boils down to the following: a gaggle of people travels across space in order to find a map showing Luke Skywalker’s location, held on a memory stick in a drawer in a spherical robot. Yep, those pesky flash drives again.

It later turns out that the map is incomplete, and the rest of it is in the hands of another robot, R2-D2, who won’t wake up for most of the film in order to spit out the missing fragment. Between them, creator George Lucas and writer and director JJ Abrams have dreamed up a dark vision of the future in which robots can talk and make decisions, but can’t email you a map.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

In which a scientist uses a computer to find the “precise location of the three remaining golden tickets sent out into the world by Willy Wonka. When he asks it to spill the beans, it announces: “I won’t tell, that would be cheating.


Image: Paramount Pictures. 

The film inhabits a world where artificial intelligence has been achieved, but no one has thought to pull Charlie's poor grandparents out of extreme poverty, or design a computer with more than three buttons.

Independence Day (1996)

When an alien invasion threatens Earth, David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) manages to stop it by hacking the alien spaceship and installing a virus. Using his Mac. Amazing, really, that aliens from across the universe would somehow use computing systems so similar to our own. 

Skyfall (2012)

In the Daniel Craig reboot of the series, MI6’s “Q” character (played by Ben Whishaw) becomes a computer expert, rather than just a gadget wizard. Unfortunately, this heralded some truly cringeworthy moments of “hacking” and “coding” in both Skyfall and Spectre (2014).

In the former, Bond and Q puzzle over a screen filled with a large, complex, web shape. They eventually realise it’s a map of subterranean London, but then the words security breach flash up, along with a skull. File under “films which make up their own operating systems because a command prompt box on a Windows desktop looks too boring”.

An honourable mention: Nelly and Kelly Rowland’s “Dilemma” (2009)

Not a movie, but how could we leave out a music video in which Kelly Rowland texts Nelly on a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet on a weird Nokia palm pilot?


Image: Vevo.

You’ll be waiting a long time for that response, Kelly. Try Tinder instead.

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